Attica, the new documentary on Showtime, is the newest project from legendary documentarian Stanley Nelson Jr. which he has co-directed with first time director Traci Curry. The brutality at Attica is still with those who were there. The parallels with the way African Americans are still treated today by the system is palpable throughout the film. The emotions onscreen tell the story, and the directors talk to Awards Daily to explain why this story needed to be told and how they went about telling it in the midst of COVID.
Awards Daily: What got you interested in the Attica riot?
Stanley Nelson Jr.: I was twenty years old when the rebellion happened and as a filmmaker wanted to learn more about it. I thought the story really hadn’t been told. I felt like we never really heard from the prisoners and there was so much of the story that I didn’t know and didn’t understand. I knew there was a lot of footage during that time that existed as well as there had been over a thousand people in the yard back then so I knew some of them had to still be alive to talk to. I didn’t have any idea that the people we would talk to across the board would be just so great and that there would be such an amazing amount of footage. Those were the reasons I was interested in the project.
Traci Curry: I didn’t know very much at all about Attica. I knew from the scene in Dog Day Afternoon that yelling “Attica” must have been something powerful, that just the mere indication in that scene was able to bring up all these emotions in that moment. I knew that something had happened at a prison in upstate New York. But I knew that it was a story that would touch on a lot of things that I was interested in, questions of abuse of power by the state, the prison system, race, class. So when Stanley asked what I thought about Attica I didn’t know much but I knew that I wanted to know more about it, and that making this film would be a real journey for me. That ended up being the case.
AD: So Traci, you were a producer on one of Stanley’s previous movies. How did you guys decide to co-direct this project?
Traci Curry: Yes, I had been producing a couple of projects including Stanley’s and, after we finished, Stanley approached me to work on this and I was really excited for the opportunity. I had done some interviews in some previous films I had produced with Stanley so that I was up to the job to get these interviews in a way that was really evocative, and compelling enough to let the people who lived through this to tell the story in their own words.
AD: Traci, this was your first time directing as well? What was that experience like?
Traci Curry: It was great! I am a real process oriented person, so I love the process of sitting with people and listening to their experiences. Since it is work I love to do it doesn’t necessarily feel like work. So yeah, it was a great experience and obviously it came with the challenge of a full pandemic, which was the big elephant in the room of every moment of production. In some ways production is inherently a series of problems that you have to solve creatively. So the pandemic was just a really big one that we had to figure out and work around and fortunately we were able to do so.
AD: One scene that really worked for me was the recorded conversation between Governor Nelson Rockefeller and President Richard Nixon talking about the situation. Did you have any thoughts about what was going on in their heads and how they thought they could get away with this, and how they did get away with this and it didn’t hurt them politically?
Stanley Nelson Jr.: That is an interesting question. I think it is risky business trying to get inside Richard Nixon’s head or Rockefeller’s head. I think you called it, they could get away with it. Rockefeller wanted to be President and to do that he felt that he had to be tougher on crime and more pro-law and order, and Nixon was whispering in his ear what he should do the whole time, and he did it. I am not sure we can get inside anybody’s heads, especially those two because they are so complicated. But I also want to say it is really important to understand there was no inciting incident that made them have to go in at that point. The prisoners thought they were negotiating in good faith, as so many people say in the film, to a peaceful end. But it didn’t work out that way.
Traci Curry: One of the things that’s so striking to me about that call is how badly Nixon wants this to be a story about disorderly blackness. You hear him saying, was it the blacks? He wants it so badly to be the story and I think one of the things that is clear from the interviews with the prisoners that however much they may have segregated themselves in Attica as prisoners (sometimes for their own protection), it’s very clear they coalesced around a political identity as prisoners that in some ways transcended those racial and other divisions the day previously organized around. But the story that Nixon wants to tell is a very different story about blackness because this is what has allowed him to become President of the United States, the whole law and order agenda. Basically a promise to white voters who were nervous about uprisings that had happened all over the country, that if you would like me to, I will restore law and order and get these unruly black people back in order. And it worked for him. So what I hear in that call is Nixon and Rockefeller trying to go back to that same well to justify what happened in that prison yard.
Stanley Nelson Jr.: I think that race is a huge subtext of the whole film. That race comes up so many times. Especially jarring and prominent in that Nixon-Rockefeller call, that is the governor of New York, one of the richest men in the world, and the President of the United States.
AD: How did you prepare to interview people who have gone through such trauma?
Traci Curry: So there is the production management of it and then the interpersonal. To start we figured out early on but this was going to be a story about the people who lived it, there was not going to be some Morgan Freeman voice of God that comes in and tells you what you’re seeing. From a production standpoint it was a matter of knowing the points that we wanted to hit in the story, and making certain that we hit that in the interviews, so we could get that information that we needed to tell the story. From an interpersonal standpoint it just required a lot of time talking to these people before we ever put a camera in their faces, to get them to trust us with these slices of their lives. It’s not something that initially people are jumping to dig into and talk about.
It was a profound trauma for all these people and for some September 9th through September 13th is incredibly triggering. So, it was that process of giving people space to have whatever emotions they want to have about it. There were tears, there was rage still there, but being with those people in those moments, that by the time we sit down with them and the camera is rolling, there is a comfort there and I am able to step in when necessary but also to step back and allow them to tell it the way they experienced it. People have asked what it is that you said to get them to be like that on camera and it is not me at all, this is the way they came, this is who these people are. In some ways it puts an exclamation point on the point they were trying to make back in prison about the recognition of their humanity.
AD: What made you want to tackle this story now?
Stanley Nelson Jr.: I had reached a point in my life and in my career that I thought I could tell the story, that I could raise the funds. I also felt it was the right time because the prisoners and the observers were getting older so that added to it being the right time. I think that in terms of what is happening in this country and the world, that this story could easily be told ten to twenty years ago or ten years from now, unfortunately. But one thing that happened during production was that George Floyd was murdered and it opened a little bit of a window for many people in this country to look at the system and law enforcement in a different way than they would have five to ten years ago. That plays an advantage to how the film would be received and recognized.
AD: Stanley, you have won several Emmys in your career. What is that like?
Stanley Nelson Jr.: The recognition by your peers is incredible. Also what it means is more people will see the film, and that really is the main goal. You want people to see the film, and the issues that underlie the film to be recognized.
AD: Stanley, you have taken on so many intense topics in your career. Traci, you have just started directing but started with a huge social issue. Is there another project that you want to take on now?
Stanley Nelson Jr.: There are a lot of things that I haven’t gotten to do. One of the things that we have been planning for years is a four-part series on the Atlantic slave trade and that got totally sidelined by COVID. We were going to have to travel to Brazil, Africa, the Caribbean and so many other places, and that became impossible, so right now it is on hold till June and hopefully things will open up. We have a number of things cooking and I’m constantly trying to enlist Traci because Traci is Traci!
Traci Curry: There is a long list, but right now I am completely consumed with Attica promotions. But there is a wide world of things I am interested in doing. So watch this space.
AD: Any final thoughts?
Stanley Nelson Jr.: I hope people watch the film and are moved by it. That is what we really are trying to do.