The saying goes that history is written by the victors, and perhaps that’s why what happened at the Attica Correctional Facility in September 1971 is so often referred to as a “riot.” After a five-day standoff between Attica prisoners, the staff they took hostage and the New York State Police who raided the prison, 43 people died — and a certain narrative of what happened took hold, one that was shaped by racism, bias and misplaced trust.
Decades later, at a time when urgent conversations about prison reform and police brutality continue to grip this country (with very little accommodation from the powers that be), filmmaker Stanley Nelson’s documentary “Attica” peels back what happened that week with methodical precision, revealing interviews and immersive atmospherics. It will rattle and upset viewers, and it should. “Attica” is an insightful, provocative work that contextualizes how those operating the facility not only enable but encourage racism and dehumanization, have done so for decades and continue to do so today. “They’re just waiting to kill us,” one of the men says of the tension between inmates and the police, and it’s a statement that undoubtedly some viewers will nod along with, in recognition and resignation, 50 years later.
The Attica survivors who thought their cause was just still do so, and the people who saw the Attica prisoners as less than human still do so. Certain ideologies about who deserves human rights and who doesn’t are still entrenched among us, and because of that intractability, challenging such narrowness becomes even more vital. “Attica” is a jarring, engrossing and enraging reminder of how those in power will lie, humiliate, kill and cover up to retain it, and the documentary is one of the year’s best.