Legendary filmmaker and documentarian Stanley Nelson, and UC Berkeley Alum Traci A. Curry, received an Oscar nomination for “Attica”: their emphatic depiction of the 1971 Attica prison revolt, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.
During the famous 1971 uprising, prisoners took 42 staff members hostage and issued a list of 30 demands over a four-day period in protest over miserable prison conditions.
“That’s what the Attica rebellion was about. They didn’t want a get-out-of-jail-free card. What they wanted, as long as they were incarcerated, was to be treated like human beings,” said Nelson.
The standoff ended when then-New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller ordered police officers to fire into the prison courtyard dubbed “Times Square,” killing 32 prisoners and 10 hostages.
The film’s true power came from archival footage from the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. They also used graphic still photos and first-hand recollections of those who were there, the Chronicle reports.
“I could feel the tension in the air. The tension was so strong that I could basically grab it and hold on to it. Am I going to make it? Am I going to live through this? And that tension was so strong, I could touch it, I could cut it and hold it in my hand. Death was written in the air,” said Alhajji Sharif, a former Attica prisoner in the film.
The footage allowed the team to tell the Attica story very vividly, the Chronicle reported.
“While I don’t know if the film offers any easy answers, I do hope it inspires people to ask more questions,” Curry told the Chronicle. “I hope that this film can be an impetus for people to get curious about the system we actually have – not the one that exists in the public imagination and is informed by fictional portrayals of prison – but the real one that we allow to exist in our name, and then to really interrogate whether it in fact does make us safer, or is a catch-all, Band-Aid solution for real social problems that we lack the will and imagination to really deal with.”
Nelson and Curry believe that “Attica” informs current social justice issues, especially in terms of criminal justice, the article noted.
“I would say that way too many people are incarcerated for way too many small crimes. The penal system just doesn’t make sense in so many ways. People still are incarcerated for marijuana – and marijuana is legal,” said Nelson. “The prison industry has become a real industry. We show that in ‘Attica,’ that Attica was and is a town that survived off the prison.”
Nelson made mention of the upcoming closure of the California Correctional Center in Susanville, during his interview with the Chronicle.
Rural towns with prisons depend on those facilities to provide employment and an influx of state and federal funding. The local economy could be devastated by the June 30 closing, proving that the for-profit economy of the prison system encourages more incarceration, Nelson said.