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'Attica' filmmakers on the making of the documentary

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

For half a century now, Attica, N.Y., has been more than a place. It's been a metaphor for just about everything that has been or still is wrong in America's prison system. That's because of what happened in September 1971, when inmates at the Attica Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in upstate New York, took more than three dozen hostages to demand more humane conditions and better treatment. For five days, a team of negotiators worked to end the largest prison uprising in U.S. history. But it all came to a horrifying end when state police violently retook the prison, killing 29 inmates and 10 hostages in the process. The documentary film "Attica" painstakingly recounts those days, as well as what led up to them and what came after. And now it's nominated for Best Documentary Feature at this year's Academy Awards.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "ATTICA")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: And all of a sudden, I seen the metal shop door open. And I seen guys come running in there with great big pipes and knives.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: And before you knew it, everybody was running all over the place.

MARTIN: Attica is co-directed by Stanley Nelson and Traci A. Curry, and they are both with us now to tell us more about the film. Stanley Nelson, Traci A. Curry, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us. And congratulations to you both.

STANLEY NELSON: Thank you so much. Thank you.

TRACI A CURRY: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: So I'm going to start with you, Stanley Nelson. And also, congratulations to you on your recent Directors Guild Award.

NELSON: Thanks.

MARTIN: And, you know, we've talked a number of times about your films, I mean, that describe important movements, institutions and people in Black history and culture. I mean, freedom riders, the Black Panthers, Miles Davis, HBCUs, the Pullman car porters. Why this film? Why now? How did Attica grip your imagination?

NELSON: Well, Attica was the kind of story that had been, like, just in my consciousness for years. I'd just kind of been thinking about it, you know, thinking about making a film about Attica because I thought that so much had not been told. I didn't know, you know, why the prisoners took over the prison. I didn't know why Governor Rockefeller took back the prison in such violent ways. And I thought it said so much about American society, you know, not only prisons, but race and class and some of the other things. And so why now? Maybe three or four years ago, I started to realize that the people in the yard who were in the yard at Attica, you know, about 50 years ago, and so they were starting to get older, and that this was the best time, the last best time to do it while people still had their memories and they were fresh.

MARTIN: Traci Curry, forgive me for pointing this out, but you are of a different generation than your co-director. And I wanted to ask both what interested you about it, but I'm also wondering, what did you know about that whole event? I mean, was it something that you had as kind of part of your consciousness? Did you know anything about it before you embarked on this?

CURRY: Yeah. That's a fair assessment, Michel. To be honest with you, I did not know very much about what had happened at Attica. I had a kind of a vague understanding that there had been a disturbance of some sort at a prison in New York during the '70s. I knew the scene from "Dog Day Afternoon." I was familiar with the Nas about opening every cell in Attica. But that was about the extent of it. And so when Stanley approached me and asked, what do you think about Attica? And the answer is, I hadn't thought much about Attica.

But one of the things that I came across in the very earliest research that I started to do was something called the McKay commission report, which was a report that was put together by a civilian commission to investigate the events of September 13, 1971. And one of the first things you see when you open the report in the front of the book is a conclusion that they reached, that what happened at Attica on the 13 is the single deadliest day of American state violence against other Americans outside of the Civil War and the wars against Indigenous people. And I just thought, my God, how is it possible that there is this void in the public consciousness, in my own consciousness about American history, where this story should be? And I kind of just knew in that moment that I had to be a part of telling it however I could.

MARTIN: The film includes interviews with dozens of ex-prisoners who were involved in the uprising, and we also hear from relatives of the guards who were held hostage. And, you know, this had to have been an unbelievably traumatic experience for everybody involved. So I was wondering what it was like to talk with people about an experience like that.

CURRY: Yes. Your assessment about that trauma would be absolutely accurate, Michel. You know, there is something that Malcolm Bell, who was a prosecutor in one of the investigations, writes in his book about Attica that Attica has a way of holding people. And I found that to be true for every single person, whether it was a prisoner, a family member of someone who was inside, all of the observers, all the members of the media. Attica just has not let any of these people go in 50 years. And so just kind of approaching the interviews with that understanding, I try to be as sensitive to that as possible, to be as transparent as I could with everybody about what Stanley and my intentions were to the project, and that ultimately our goal was to tell the story that was true about what happened.

There have been a lot of misunderstandings and misconceptions, particularly when it comes to the hostages. And, you know, that narrative, that false narrative of the harm being done by prisoners rather than law enforcement has persisting - has persisted, despite the fact that that was corrected the very next day. And so I just try to make it clear to them that our goal was to tell a story that was true and that was authentic, and that it would center the voices and experiences of those who were there.

MARTIN: You know, Traci Curry, over the last few years, we've seen protests at the jail facilities and prison facilities across the country. What I'm thinking mainly about jails, protests inside the Saint Louis City Justice Center in Missouri, their recent calls to release people at Rikers Island in New York City, just a couple of examples for, I mean, similar reasons, right? Inhumane conditions and especially during COVID. In fact, there's been recent data that has indicated how many poor people died over the last two years than had previously died in prison and also just when they were released from prison.

And I'm just - it's interesting that your film lands at such a moment. But I'm wondering how, again, because this wasn't part of your life growing up, this wasn't like a touchstone for you, just what this kind of raises for you - you know what I mean? - in the contemporary moment, like, how you see those protests, what you think that - what you think may have been learned or not learned from Attica?

CURRY: Yeah. I think that, you know, Michel, I always say that I cannot - that in some ways the story that we tell would be what it is, regardless of when we told it. But I cannot separate the making of this film from the fact that we made it in 2020, right? So, you know, I happen to live someplace where there were George Floyd protests outside of my window. And I saw law enforcement being very aggressive. In some ways, the story that we were telling here really became very clear in my mind that ultimately this was a story about the state's abuse of power when people righteously challenged the abuse of that power in law enforcement overreach and the extent to which the state is the willing to go, up to it and including violence, against its own people in order to reassert its authority in the face of that challenge. And it also just kind of really made clear to me that this isn't just some, you know, fossil that we've excavated from history to kind of teach everyone an American history lesson, but that what happened at Attica 50 years ago is very much in conversation with and informing and resonating with where we are today.

MARTIN: And, Stanley, speaking of history lessons, you know, we're in a moment where a number of states have passed laws regulating how certain topics are to be taught. And, you know, your films are in the center of some of these conversations. You know, your films are - touch on topics that are a part of American history. Your whole body of work is very much, you know, part of the American story. And I'm just wondering how, you know, what you think about this, if you think about this. I mean, I'm sure many of your films have been taught in schools because they are accessible. They are meant for the public. They're not meant just, you know, for practitioners. They are meant to - for the public to kind of receive and understand sometimes these very complicated issues.

And I just - I don't know. I mean, it's kind of an open-ended question. Just - I'm wondering if you've been thinking about that and what you think about this, the sort of the current moment we're in around teaching some of these issues, particularly, it has to be said, race, I mean, issues that touch on race. I mean, that seems to be the target of some of these movements.

NELSON: Yeah. I mean, I think it's just such a strange moment that we're living in. And, you know, if you could have - you couldn't have imagined it, you know, five or even, you know, five or 10 years ago. I think that that, you know, Attica and other films that we've worked on talk about and teach history, you know, and that is really needed. And that if some people feel uncomfortable, you know, that's just the way it is. That's our history. I hope that, you know, my films are seen and, you know, not banned, but to tell the truth, I kind of don't think about it a lot. I'm just making films.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you about that. Do you think about it? I was just wondering if it made you feel some kind of way or if you're just kind of - I don't want to say put your head down, that's not quite right, but just keep doing the work and...

NELSON: Well, I mean, I think about it just like everybody else. But as a filmmaker, I'm not, you know, in any way going to self-censor because maybe, you know, our history makes people uncomfortable. And I think that's - if I did that, I would go nuts.

MARTIN: That was Stanley Nelson and Traci A. Curry, co-directors of the now-Oscar-nominated documentary "Attica." It's out now on Showtime and streaming for free on YouTube through the end of the month. Traci Curry and Stanley Nelson, thank you both so much for being with us.

CURRY: Thank you.

NELSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.