“It didn’t have to end this way.”
That’s one of the central messages of Stanley Nelson and Traci A. Curry’s Oscar-nominated documentary Attica, about the 1971 prison uprising in upstate New York that culminated in mass bloodshed. The Showtime film meticulously reconstructs what precipitated the revolt, led primarily by inmates of color, what transpired during the five days prisoners held control of Attica, and the hideous crackdown that saw authorities slaughter inmates and hostages alike.
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“It was just a decision made by Nelson Rockefeller, the [then] governor of New York, to go in with guns blazing and shoot gas in first, which created smoke and fog and they couldn’t even see,” Nelson said during a panel discussion of Attica for Deadline’s Contenders Film: The Nominees event. “They were shooting indiscriminately into the crowd.”
The filmmakers spoke with numerous ex-prisoners who survived the carnage, as well as family members of Attica prison guards, reporters who covered the story as it unfolded and observers who were brought in to try to mediate the tense situation before its violent denouement.
“My intention from the start just in looking for these people was to find every single person that I possibly could who is still around,” Curry explained. “It obviously is profoundly traumatic for all of them, but we were fortunate enough that there were people who were willing enough and able to recount and with such clarity, not only of memory but also of emotion. It was all very present there with all of those folks once we really got into it.”
The observers who attempted to bring the revolt to a peaceful conclusion found that most of the inmates’ demands were reasonable.
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“The prisoners wanted to be treated like human beings,” Nelson said. “One of the things that was happening in the prison is that they were getting beat for no reason. They were not given anything but one roll of toilet paper a month. The conditions in Attica were really horrendous… They had a list of 30 demands, 28 of those demands had been met. So it really just hinged on two demands at the point where law enforcement goes in with lethal and brutal force.”
It’s the first Oscar nomination for Curry, and for Nelson, whose career in documentary goes back more than 30 years.
“It’s an incredible honor to be nominated. Sometimes I think it shouldn’t mean so much, but it does,” Nelson said. “Though the really important thing is that it means that more people are going to see the film, and that’s why we made this. Never did we think, when we were in the edit room or shooting the film, that we would be nominated for an Academy Award. That’s not why we made the film. I think that more people will see the film and hopefully more people will think about our prison system.”
Check out the panel video above.
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