‘Attica’ directors Stanley Nelson and Traci Curry on revisiting America’s deadliest prison riot

Stanley Nelson, one of the directors of the documentary “Attica,” feels like the sad fact that everyone killed on the last day of the Attica Prison riot was killed by law enforcement is something that’s been lost to history. “The first reports were that the inmates had slit people’s throats and had killed people,” Nelson, along with co-director Traci Curry, tells Gold Derby during our recent Meet the Experts: Film Documentary panel (watch the exclusive video interview above). Unfortunately, by the time authorities figured out what had actually happened, the public had already latched on to the false narrative. “When the medical examiner examined the dead, they found no throats were slit, but it had already come out and the retraction is never as forceful or seen by as many people.”

“Attica,” which is currently available to stream from Showtime, examines the events of the prison uprising at Attica from the perspective of the former inmates who lived through it. In September of 1971 over 1,200 inmates took control the maximum security facility and took 42 prison workers hostage in an attempt to gain better living conditions and better treatment from the guards. Over the course of a week, meetings and negotiations took place that inmates hoped would lead to their demands being met. This was cut short when state authorities raided the prison in a siege that left 33 inmates and 10 correctional officers dead, with the vast majority dying at the hands of law enforcement.

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Over the course of his career, Nelson has won three Emmys. In 2003 he won Non-Fiction Directing for “The Murder of Emmett Till” and in 2011 he picked up wins in Non-Fiction Writing and Exceptional Merit in Non-Fiction Filmmaking for “Freedom Riders.”

While Nelson does remember hearing about the riot when it happened, Curry had not yet been born when it occurred. She had first heard about the riot when she watched Al Pacino start screaming about it in “Dog Day Afternoon.” “I think I was curious about what it was about this word and the event that was attached to it that was so resonant in the culture.” When she started looking into the facts of what happened, Curry was shocked by what she discovered. “When I first began digging into the research, it was mind-blowing to find out that I and so many people knew nothing about what a civilian commission called, ‘the single deadliest day of state violence against American people.’”

Curry believes the ultimate takeaway from the film is what happens when people challenge those in power. “This is ultimately a story about what happens when people make a just and righteous challenge to the power and the abuse of the state’s authority and the lengths the state will go in order to reassert that power.” Nelson added that the film also serves to remind us that people serving time in prison are still human beings and should be treated as such. “The prison system has exploded since 1971. There are people who are trapped in prisons and we don’t think about them and I think it’s really important that we think about them and see them as human beings.”

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