“It was a complete education for me,” admits Traci Curry, the director of the documentary “Attica.” The critically acclaimed film, co-directed by Emmy-winning filmmaker Stanley Nelson, chronicles the infamous 1971 prison uprising in upstate New York and the botched response by the state and federal government that resulted in the deaths of more than 40 people. The Showtime film has earned three nominations at the upcoming Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards including Best Documentary Feature and Best Director for Nelson and Curry. Watch our exclusive video chat with both directors above.
For Curry, who was not alive when the riots happened, the making of the film gave her an opportunity to connect the invocation of the prison’s name — famously referenced in Sidney Lumet‘s “Dog Day Afternoon” — with a true humanitarian crisis. “I never could have imagined the extent of the story,” she says. “I never could have imagined that this story ends with the state filling 39 of its own people. It was really not only an education for me, but a real journey.”
Part of that journey involved Curry conducting interviews with several of the prisoners who lived through the uprising. Curry describes the challenges in getting these men to open up about an even that still haunts them to this day. “”As you can imagine, having to revisit the defining trauma of your life with a complete stranger is not something most people are jumping to do,” she explains. “I just wanted to kind of hear what their experience was without judgement. And there were conversations over the course of the months before we finally sat down on camera.”
Nelson describes what he calls the audience’s “stunned silence” when they see the film and its depiction of what he calls “casual racism.” One of the film’s most chilling segments contains excerpts from recorded conversations between the Governor Nelson Rockefeller and President Richard Nixon. For Curry, those conversations exemplify one of the film’s primary themes. “”Sometimes when you try to get your arms around what systemic and institutional racism looks like, it can be a tricky thing,” she argues. “What’s so interesting to me on that phone call with Rockefeller and with Nixon is that you hear them showing you how the sausage gets made. You hear them spinning this narrative that is basically about unruly and criminal blackness.”
For Nelson, the film has a particular resonance in light of recent discussion of race and the prison industrial complex. “I knew going in that it would resonate today,” he says. “We felt going in that the story did that. But that changed as we were making the film — with George Floyd and everything that happened — it just became even more resonant and more relevant.” Curry agrees: “We were do focused on telling this story about what happened in this moment. But it just so happens that we made this film in 2020.”
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