AUP. Ep. 32 The Agony of ‘Attica’


Transcribed: Cameron Blackwell

Completed: 12/20/21

Cortney Wills: [00:00:02] Hello and welcome to Acting Up the podcast that dives deep into the world of TV and film that highlights our people, our culture, and our stories. I’m your host, Cortney Wills, Entertainment Director at theGrio, and this week we’re speaking with Stanley Nelson and Traci A. Curry to find out what it took to create their riveting documentary Attica. The Showtime doc and Oscar contender examines the crisis that unfolded during the summer of 1971 when tensions between inmates and guards at the Attica Correctional Facility were at an all-time high. On the morning of September 9th, it all comes to a head as Attica becomes the stage for one of the largest U.S. prison riots ever. This film dropped in October and really gets to the heart of what happened in a way that we’ve never seen before. I thought I knew about this story, but it turns out I really didn’t. The two-hour doc features survivors, observers, and expert government officials who all recount this uprising at the Attica Correctional Facility that went on for five days and was mainly a standoff between Black and Latino inmates, and law enforcement. It also really highlights the urgency for prison reform now 50 years later. We’ve got Stanley Nelson and Traci A. Curry here today. They both directed this film and I had so many questions. Let’s get into it. Hi, Stanley, it’s good to see you. [00:01:30][88.2]

Stanley Nelson: [00:01:31] Good to see you. [00:01:31][0.5]

Cortney Wills: [00:01:32] Hi, Traci. [00:01:32][0.1]

Traci Curry: [00:01:33] Hi, Cortney. Nice to meet you. [00:01:34][1.3]

Cortney Wills: [00:01:34] Nice to meet you, too. It’s a pleasure to have both of you on Acting Up today talking about this incredible documentary, Attica that once again Stanley like mind blown on something I thought maybe I knew a little bit about and turns out, nope, I knew nothing correct about this historic, brutal, terrible uprising. And still, I think, remains our nation’s largest, deadliest one in our history. I’m so grateful to you for diving into another element that exemplifies why prison reform must remain at the forefront of our minds as we take on so many other battles as we fight for our freedoms in different sectors of life. You know, I feel like the incarcerated are often forgotten, and it’s easy to think, OK, I know that prisons are bad. They’ve probably always been bad. Maybe worse for Black people, but they deserve it. They’re criminals. We got to worry about the people who don’t break the law first, and I feel like this documentary really broke down so many of those arguments. I mean, just shot holes right through them and left me feeling like anybody watching this. I don’t care what your thoughts were before, you know, coming to the project, but after. I can’t imagine not being moved and not being extremely alarmed at what persists in this country. So first off, Stanley, tell me why this made it onto your docket. Why was this the next thing for you to tackle in a documentary? [00:03:06][92.0]

Stanley Nelson: [00:03:07] Well, I’ve long wanted to do the story of Attica. For years, we’ve been thinking about doing a film on the prison system and wanted to make a film. But but we, you know, we didn’t want to make the film about, you know, this one person who’s, you know, incarcerated unjustly. And so, you know, you tell their story. And at the end of the film, we’re like, Oh, yeah, well, you know, they, you know, it was really bad for them. They shouldn’t have been arrested. And, you know, but you know, you don’t think about the whole system, which is a mess. So that I thought it was an incredible reason to make the film as a filmmaker. I felt that you know, there were people, you know, in the yard prisoners, former prisoners who could tell the story, they were getting older. You know, certainly, the committee who went in, they were getting older. The people from the Nixon administration probably were almost, you know, all had passed away. But that, you know, we had to make the film fairly soon to really get the participation of people who were involved. And then, you know, we knew that there was some footage and some pictures that existed, but we didn’t have any idea the amount of footage and archival material that we would find. [00:04:20][72.4]

Cortney Wills: [00:04:21] I mean, that footage. Five minutes into the documentary, my husband and I looked at each other like wait, who had a camera in there. I mean, those beginning moments, the very beginning of that uprising. Where did that footage come from before the journalist, before the negotiations? Like, where did that come from? [00:04:39][18.2]

Stanley Nelson: [00:04:40] So, so much of the footage the black and white footage was the New York state surveillance tapes. So. So they had one of the first cameras that you could use. Sony put out what’s called a quarterback, and that was the first kind of home video camera. And it consisted of a camera, you know, a video camera that would only shoot black and white. And then when there was a cable that it attached to a huge reel to reel recorder that you could kind of carry as a strap, you know, with it on the side. But you know, it seems primitive today, but at that time it was a real breakthrough because it meant that, you know, individuals could go out and shoot. And so the prison system had one of those and they were. Started filming really early on in the rebellion. [00:05:26][46.6]

Cortney Wills: [00:05:27] Wow, Traci, what attracted you to this project, and what did you intend to bring to it once you signed on? [00:05:34][6.9]

Traci Curry: [00:05:35] So I, you know, Attica happened before my time, so I didn’t know too much about it when Stanley sort of came to me and asked about my interest in this project. So I knew that there was something that had happened at a prison in upstate New York. But I knew that this would involve a lot of questions about justice and the prison system and state abuse of power and race that I’m really, really interested in. And so I was I was really excited about the opportunity to kind of dig into that. I think that I really enjoyed the process of making this film because so much of it was just sitting in the space with the people that lived it and experienced it and allowing them the room to tell it and feel it the way that they the way that they authentically felt it. And, you know, a lot of that work was really just kind of taking the time over weeks and weeks and weeks of talking to them, getting to know them, being really transparent with them about my, and Stanley’s intentions for what we were going to do with these slices of their lives that they were sharing with us for the film. It was not easy and a lot of it was really just about kind of getting that trust. It was not an easy remembrance for any of these people. All of them were profoundly traumatized by what happened not only the actual, visceral experience of being in the middle of a massacre, but recognizing that it was our own government that had targeted you in this way. And so a lot of that was just kind of giving people the space to feel it the way they feel it, and still 50 years later. What I found was that all of those emotions, all of those feelings, the rage, the horror, the sadness, the betrayal, all of that is still so present with all of these people. It’s right there beneath the surface. So after all of those conversations over those weeks, by the time we were able to kind of sit down with them and get them to talking on camera, it was all right there. And my job was to sort of guide that, but really kind of step back and give them the space to talk authentically about what it is that they experienced. [00:07:32][117.1]

Cortney Wills: [00:07:33] Gosh, those subjects you that you guys interviewed, I mean, first off, the way that you kind of kicked off the film, you brought us right in, I heard a, you know, I heard banging and then it was, you know, people were carrying pipes and we were right in the middle of like the beginning of the action, and it felt like it was certainly coming from the former prisoners who lived it and seeing these men. I mean, they look beat up. If you would have told me they were talking about something that happened three years ago instead of 50, I would have believed you because it felt that fresh in how they looked and in how they spoke about it. The passion, the anger. Like you said, a really poignant moment early on are the prisoners describing that other prisoners basically protected this guard who had been hurt and, you know, found him a mattress and carried them out. And you know, one of the prisoners is like, I wish I could have gotten to them, you know, like, I wish I could have gotten to the guards like they had it coming. They deserved it and we’re hit with all of these kinds of different emotions. Other ones who seemed sympathetic like he shouldn’t have gotten hurt like that, and we were trying to help him and other ones who were like, This is our moment for freedom. However short-lived it is, all of these different emotions came at us at once, and then later, throughout the doc, we really start to understand where they come from. I mean, these prisoners had been abused, indescribably almost. I mean, and they look like people who had been abused. It looks like you could have been you could have told me this was a documentary about boxers, you know, because their eyes were not where they probably were, when and when they were born, like their faces were mangled. It looked like they had been through something terrible. And I never found myself thinking, like, I wonder what he was in prison for. None of them, it is. The prisoner’s stigma all washed away almost instantaneously, and I felt like I was listening to victims of a government-inflicted attack. And that was just so mind-blowing. And I wondered if it kind of came together with the way that you thought that it would like. Those emotions at times felt like they were conflicting like they were very different, but they all together really reflected what these men must have been going through up until this point. [00:09:50][136.5]

Stanley Nelson: [00:09:51] That’s a great question because I think that one of the things that really sticks with you is the face of the guys, you know, and it’s hard to describe and you just kind of have to see the film. But with the faces really stick with you and you know, the form of the film, I think we really struggle with the beginning because, you know, we want it. It’s hard for any film because, you know, you have to have a certain amount of backstory to understand, you know, so you have to have a certain amount of backstory to understand, you know, the Black Panther Party, you have to have a certain amount of backstory to understand, you know, the Freedom Riders. And so you have to have some backstory to understand Attica. But we felt that there was a piece that at that point we were editing, you know, we called the flashback, which, you know, flashback to the town in the cruel prison conditions and that that if you started the film, just bam with with the rebellion, it just dropped you right in the middle that hopefully, it holds you so hard and so fast that you’re not exactly worried about why. You know, and then then, you know, when it kind of settled down a moment and you think, Well, wait a minute, we know like, why are these guys rebelling? And we wanted to try to then tell you why at that point. And you know, we were able to find some great stuff that helps go back. You know, the clip with the news guy says, you know, they’re college towns and they’re factory towns, and Attica is a prison town. You know, it’s just like that. That was the clip. And that helped bring it back to the town of Attica and back to the guards and in and the conditions that existed for the prisoners. [00:11:39][108.6]

Cortney Wills: [00:11:42] Yes, prison town never occurred to me, Traci, like that I thought was such a- this place is built. I mean, they have vested the community as this tragedy is unfolding. These are not just people who happened to live in the neighboring houses, they were all part of this system. And number one, I was like, who would ever want to live in a prison town? And two, just how many like generations, how built-in was even the brutality, you know like you think about the psychology of a guard who’s supposed to do his job, but that doesn’t necessarily mean inflicting, you know, pain and violence on human beings that they’re charged with, you know, keeping in order, but also protecting. But if your dad and your grandpa and great-grandpa have been coming home and passing down stories of the trash they have to deal with all day, every day at work, that the ability to view these men as other than human as less than was probably maybe even like innate. [00:12:46][64.1]

Traci Curry: [00:12:47] Yeah, Cortney, I think you really hit it on the head when you say that they were all part of this system, right? I think in some ways, the guards and even those state troopers that went in, we’re sort of the blunt instrument of the state that was derelict in its duty to prevent all of this that happened. And I think that we could have done this reductive thing where we tell a story about like good and bad black and white heroic prisoners, evil guards, right? But that’s not reality that’s not humanity. And I think in some ways, though, the heart of the film is what you mentioned earlier, recognizing all of these shades of humanity in the prison. The guards were also human beings as well, and the truth is that there are no monsters or just people that sometimes do monstrous things. And I think it was important for us to understand that for the audience to understand that Attica before it was a prison, it was a place, it was a community. And for all of the violence and the brutality and quite frankly, the racism that was meted out against some of the prisoners in the prison. It’s not like any of these people took this job because they wanted to go wail on Black people, right? Like this was a good job in this town. You could, you know, most of these were single-income households. It is very traditional. For that time, there was a man that went on worked in a mother that stayed at home and you could raise a family on the salary that you made at this prison. It was considered a good job to have you got a pension. And not only was this economic incentive, but you’re absolutely right. There was a sense of community pride around having done this work and being part of generations of people that do this work, or a community of people that do this work. And I think as much as the sort of racial dynamic of the film is evident. I also think there’s a class analysis that we can look at this right, because ultimately it’s Nelson Rockefeller who has this ungodly amount of wealth. I mean, the man’s name is on a building in New York City, and you have these guards who are working-class people, essentially his employees, they work for the state and we see how, though ostensibly the retaking had to happen to rescue the hostages. Their lives are ultimately as disposable in the eyes of the state as the prisoners were. [00:14:57][129.9]

Cortney Wills: [00:14:58] Yeah. He didn’t give a damn about the guards. [00:14:59][1.4]

Traci Curry: [00:15:00] At all, at all. You know, and I think it was important for us to kind of recognize all of those shades of humanity and all of the people who were harmed in what happened. [00:15:08][7.6]

Cortney Wills: [00:15:08] I mean, okay. So the uprising happens, it lasts five days. For the most part, the 12, you know, hostages which were made up of prison guards and some other employees of the prison are taken care of. I mean, they weren’t being brutalized and beaten up. They were OK. And these prisoners attempt to negotiate basic human rights like, you know, not getting their ass kicked for nothing and you know, food that is not rotten and so on and so on and so on. And then they’re letting journalists in. People are coming in, civilians are coming in and out unharmed. And then we get this order from the top right, as you mentioned, to end this thing. And it sounded like by any means necessary and under the guise of we’ve got to save these 12 hostages. And then what we know happens is basically mass murder, a huge attack. Thirty-nine lives, lost guards, prisoners. And of course, I’m left wondering why, like, what was the real rationale for that order? And then beyond that, like, it doesn’t end there, then these lies and these rumors get going about what was done to these guards and these hostages by the prisoners and the police come in and unleash like an uncontrollable rage for days of brutality and beatings. And the attack was twofold. You know, it didn’t last one day. It wasn’t about just retaking the prison and regaining control, it was about payback and vengeance. What was it like to kind of discover that that was actually, I mean, did you know, did you have a feeling or was that uncovered to you both while making this film? [00:16:56][108.2]

Stanley Nelson: [00:16:57] I think that for me, it was like slowly peeled back. I mean, I really didn’t understand, you know, that that there was really no inciting incident. There was nothing that happened. So that was all that, OK, now we’ve got to take back the prison. It was more about, you know, we’re sick of these guys, you know, and we have the power to take it back. In many ways, the prisoners thought that they were negotiating in good faith and they were close. You know, they had accepted 28 of 30 demands. But and then it was Rockefeller’s political ambitions in Nixon’s desire for what he called a Law and Order. And so, you know, and I think that we have to understand that there was no plan that could when they retook the prison, there was no plan. They could have worked. There was no plan except to go in, shoot some gas on everybody and start shooting. You know, there was no OK, we’re going to kind of, you know, go in and free the hostages or and nobody is going to get hurt. No, there was no plan that could have ended in any other way. And so that was part of it is just, you know, revenge and show the power of the state. And, you know, we’re not going to negotiate with these convicts and criminals and Black folks. [00:18:20][83.2]

Cortney Wills: [00:18:21] Traci, what do you think about that level of depravity that you also must have just kind of discovered? And I would imagine probably from the point of view of the prisoners, which couldn’t have been easy? [00:18:32][10.7]

Traci Curry: [00:18:33] Yeah. I think one of the things that was really striking to me was that you know, if anybody is aware of the violence that the state is capable of, it is people who are in prison right? I mean, they knew that this couldn’t last forever. And what a lot of them told me was like, Listen, by day five, you’re talking about a thousand men living in a contained space together for five days, like the conditions were not great. A couple of days later, and we would have been like, fine, we’ll just go back to our cells, this thing would have fallen apart. So they understood that there was going to be an ending. They understood that violence might be involved in this ending. There had been uprisings at other prisons in the country and New York in the year before that happened, and there was kind of a way that these things tended to go. The police would come in, maybe their sticks. You know, there’s like you hear the guy say in the film that they thought it was going to be sort of this glorious like the last stand where like, the police have sticks and they have whatever little makeshift things they could put together, and we were going to fight it out and we were probably going to get the crap beat out of us. But then we’d be back in our cells, the end, right? And so in some ways, it was shocking to me that they were still surprised 50 years later at the level of brutality because I kind of thought, Well, they’re prisoners like they know this is going to be bad. They see their guns. But I think it kind of speaks to just this, even for Black people and even for those of us who should know better that we still have or this belief that we should be protected by the state, that we should have our citizenship and our humanity recognized by the state that it was so shocking to them and to everybody this orgy of violence that ultimately happened. And why, like even i- in some ways, feel like you should know better because this is what happens, especially when you’re Black historically and you respond to injustice by the state or you say you’re a threat to the state power, state-sponsored violence and it tries to destroy you. So in some ways, that is not new to me. And yet I like all the prisoners. I think everybody that watches this film is just, I mean, it’s unbelievable in some ways that the state essentially uses these state troopers as a blunt instrument to massacre these people. And as you hear Clarence Jones say in the film, it didn’t have to happen. There was this thing who’s also in New York state congressman, who was one of the observers said after the retaking. He says there’s always a time to die. What was the rush? And one of the things that was so sad to me is that pretty much all of the observers to this day feel still feel like it was a personal failing on their part that they were unable to do anything to stop it from happening. And I’m like, You guys did everything. You try to get the governor to come. This was not on you, and it’s clear to me that there really is nothing they could have done to stop it. But it’s still kind of haunts them that they weren’t able to do more to prevent it from happening. So I mean, every single person is just, like Clarence said, never, ever, ever, ever, ever forget what happened at Attica. And I found that to be true for every single person that was touched by the story. [00:21:27][174.2]

Cortney Wills: [00:21:28] It also made me like, want to google the law, you know, like, can they do that? Like, is that an order that’s allowed to be given go in and massacre citizens? I don’t care if they’re prisoners or not like, OK, prisoners are like you said, if you go against the state, they’re going against the state. But you know, protesters holding up Black Lives Matter signs, depending on the day, might be deemed going against the state. And we saw what happened at those, you know, peaceful demonstrations, gas, and violence. And it makes me, you know, you said you were surprised that the prisoners were surprised. And I do think that you know, my generation and younger has a more, you know, because of these stories being told and these truths being illuminated. I think we do navigate the world without the same kind of faith in our government protecting us than maybe our parents and grandparents did. But I also still hear people like, you know, they can’t, they can’t do that. They’re not going to do that. And it makes me wonder like how easily can the line move and will it move because we see what happened at the Capitol and so far they can do that. And it just kind of reignites this, I think, deep-seated fear of understanding that we navigate our lives under these laws that sometimes don’t apply to us, you know like we don’t have the protection of the law the way that everyone else does. So what really could happen if you rise up? And that was I was left with that because we’re in a time now where we have reasons to rise up in different ways for so many different reasons. And part of me thinks that we’re free to do that. And the other part of me feels like, how will they actually respond? What are they capable of? How are they capable of responding and justifying it because there were no arrests for these brutalities, correct? There were no arrests. These guys didn’t get released early. The government said that this was allowed and so it is allowed. So like, what else is allowed? [00:23:35][126.1]

Stanley Nelson: [00:23:35] Yeah, I mean, I think that you know, we have to understand that there are two, you know, Richard Nixon was elected in 68 under a Law and Order. I mean, you know that his commercials, you know, you can look at them on YouTube, you know, talk about Law and Order, you know, restoring Law and Order. I think, you know, I fear that that, you know, we’re going to see more and more violence, you know, at demonstrations and things, you know, they’ve actually passed laws that so that people can respond in a violent way. But also, you know, I think that if the nation turns back to Trumpism, you know, it’s going to give law enforcement and others, you know, and that’s really scary because others are the others are carrying automatic weapons. They’ll feel like they have the right to respond. They’ll feel like they were voted in to be even more forceful, to be even more violent. And so I think that you know, Attica is a warning of how violent people can get and how non caring they can get and how they can do that with impunity. Because, as you say, no one was ever prosecuted. [00:24:46][70.8]

Cortney Wills: [00:24:47] You love making things that make us think and scare us shitless, don’t you Stanley? [00:24:51][3.3]

Stanley Nelson: [00:24:53] You know, I use the term historical bubble, you know, we don’t want to make films that kind of exist, you know, in a historical bubble where you see the film and you’re like, Oh, OK, you know, let’s go get a cheeseburger. No, I mean, I think that you know, whatever, I think that Attica is a very affecting film and that, you know, when, when you see it, you can’t help but think about. [00:25:13][19.7]

Cortney Wills: [00:25:14] Traci, what was the hardest moment of making this film, [00:25:17][2.5]

Traci Curry: [00:25:17] probably making it in a whole pandemic? Yeah. I mean, I started working on the film and I want to say either January or February 2020. And then, you know, the pandemic was the elephant in the room. We’re dealing with a group of people who are all 70 plus who are extremely vulnerable to this virus. And so it was just that extra layer of pressure and challenge of how can we do this in a way that maintains the integrity of the story but also prioritizes the safety and health of everyone. And thank God. Knock on wood. It all worked out. [00:25:52][34.4]

Cortney Wills: [00:25:52] Awesome. Thank you so much, Traci. Appreciate you. Thank you, Stanley. [00:25:55][3.2]

Traci Curry: [00:25:57] Thank you. Thank you so much, Cortney. I love theGrio, so I’m so excited to be able to do this. Oh yeah. [00:26:02][4.9]

Cortney Wills: [00:26:02] Well, we’re excited to have you on. You take care. If you have not seen Attica, now is the time to catch it on Showtime. It is not to be missed. See you next week! Thank you for listening to Acting Up. If you like what you heard, please give us a five-star review and subscribe to the show wherever you listen to your podcast and share it with everyone you know. Please email all questions, comments, and suggestions to Acting Up is brought to you by theGrio and executive produced by Cortney Wills and produced by Cameron Blackwell. For more with me and Acting Up, check us out on Instagram @ActingUp.Pod. [00:26:02][0.0]