The new documentary “Attica” that tells the story of the 1971 prison riot at the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York made a specific choice to cut the voices of academics and historians, opting instead to make this film exclusively the story of the prisoners and families who lived through it.
“Your instincts whenever you’re telling the story is go to the historians. It was so dissonant with the voices of the prisoners and the families because you’re putting this disconnected, academic, pedantic voice,” the film’s producer Traci Curry told TheWrap’s Steve Pond at the Toronto Film Festival. “It just became clear that this just has to be their story.”
“It was definitely the right decision. There’s no second-guessing,” director Stanley Nelson added. “It was like he was coming from another world. Butted up against people like Tyrone who had been there, and him talking about it in academic tones just didn’t work.”
One of those individuals is Tyrone Larkins, who was in the prison yard in 1971 when over a thousand men in the prison rioted, took control of the prison and took hostages in their demand for better living conditions, political rights and to push back against the racism they endured. For him, he found the trust in Curry to effectively tell his story for the first time and that he was “never asked” before.
“It allowed me to go back to the recesses of my mind,” Larkins said. “I wouldn’t say that what Tracy and I did was an interview but a conversation.”
Larkins recalled what he was thinking nearly 50 years ago to the day, believing for days that there might be a chance for an amenable solution, that they might be granted some more rights and that “no one would get hurt.”
“That’s when we were informed that a prison guard died in the hospital in Buffalo,” Larkins said. “That’s when we knew that things were going to change very, very drastically.”
What came after was a military-style raid in which 29 prisoners and 10 hostages were killed, with at least 43 people dead by the end of the whole ordeal.
Nelson said that they gained access to rare, uncut video camera footage that showed that for nearly eight full minutes, they heard nothing but shooting as law enforcement fought their way into the prison. And asking their subjects to relive that moment demonstrated that there was “profound trauma” for everyone involved.
“I don’t think there was a single person I interviewed where there were not either tears or great emotion during the course of the interview. It’s clear that 50 years later, this has not left anyone unscarred,” Curry said. “In that scene in particular, we bring to bear all of the tools we have as filmmakers to make that resonate with audiences and make them feel unsettled and disturbed by this orgy of violence.”
Larkins said in the fray that he was “shot severely,” and he remembers being instructed to lay on the ground as a helicopter flew overhead and fired gas into the prison yard, all as bullets were flying as well.
“This is not the first rodeo that people under the law enforcement veil has done something of this nature,” Larkins said. “What we learned from Attica is that those in power, when they get frustrated, they rely on the only thing they know, and that is violence.”
Watch the full interview with the team behind “Attica” above.