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Filmmaker Stanley Nelson on Police Brutality, Black History & His First Oscar Nomination for “Attica”

StoryFebruary 18, 2022
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Image Credit: Showtime

Legendary filmmaker Stanley Nelson’s new documentary “Attica” has been nominated for the first Oscar in his three-decades-long career documenting the Black American experience. The film tells the story of the deadliest prison uprising in U.S. history, when men at the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York rebelled on September 9, 1971, overpowering guards and taking over much of the prison to protest conditions, before New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller called out state troopers, who opened fire and killed at least 39 men, including 10 guards. Attica is one of the most “important American events that happened over the last 50 years,” says Nelson. He also has an upcoming film focusing on the racist origins of police and discusses the hate crimes trial of Ahmaud Arbery’s murderers and the condemnation of police in New Jersey who broke up a fight by violently arresting a Black teen while allowing an older white teen to remain free. “These things are not just happening for the first time. These things are being filmed for the first time,” says Nelson.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

As we spend much of today’s show with the legendary filmmaker Stanley Nelson, one of the leading documentarians of our time, we turn to his latest documentary, Attica, with Traci Curry, which tells the story of the deadliest prison uprising in U.S. history, in 1971, when prisoners at the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York rebelled on September 9, 1971, overpowering guards, taking over much of the prison to protest conditions, before they were brutally suppressed. Stanley Nelson’s extraordinary new film is nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. This is his first nomination in his more than three-decade-long career making more than 30 films. He is a three-time Primetime Emmy winner, two for his work on Freedom Riders, which was added to the National Film Registry in the Library of Congress in 2020. This is the trailer for Attica.

ARTHUR HARRISON: Attica was fear.

JOE HEATH: It was 70% Black and Brown prisoners, all white guards. What could go wrong?

DAVID BROSIG: “Grab the guards! Grab the keys!”

GEORGE CHE NIEVES: All hell broke loose.

PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: Tell me this: Are these primarily Blacks?

ARTHUR HARRISON: Guys were complaining about these basic things like toothpaste, a roll of toilet paper to last you a month.

JAIME VALONE: The inmates were considered like animals.

GEORGE CHE NIEVES: They’d beat you up in your cell, and then they’d take you to segregation. And sometimes you don’t come back.

REPORTER: Have the inmates made any demands?

RUSSELL OSWALD: There are all kinds of demands for changing the whole world.

LEWIS M. STEEL: This had to be mediated; otherwise, it was going to end in disaster. They wanted to use those weapons.

ARTHUR HARRISON: “Put your hands in the air, and you will not be harmed.”

DANIEL SHEPPARD: “You will not be harmed.”

GEORGE CHE NIEVES: “You will not be harmed.” But that was bull [bleep].

CLARENCE JONES: They want to kill us.

ELLIOTT “L.D.” BARKLEY: We are men!

UNIDENTIFIED: He was waking up America.

ALHAJJI SHARIF: Somebody had to take a stand.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the trailer for Attica, the new documentary on Showtime that’s actually streaming for free on YouTube until the end of Black History Month, co-directed by the legendary filmmaker Stanley Nelson, nominated for his first Academy Award. We’re going to play some clips. But, Stanley, let’s start with why you made this film about the deadliest prison uprising in this country. They started September 9th, 1971, and Governor Nelson Rockefeller called out the state troopers, who opened fire on September 13th.

STANLEY NELSON: I felt that the story of Attica had never really been told. You know, I was around when Attica happened in '71, but I never knew why the prisoners rebelled. I never knew why Rockefeller and law enforcement went in Attica and just slaughtered the inmates and the guards. So, I thought that there was so much of the story that I didn't know. And I thought, and I think, that this is really one of the really important American events that happened over the last 50 years.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to the next clip, and that’s — if you could set it up — the first night, Stanley, the first night of the uprising.

STANLEY NELSON: Yeah. When the prisoners took over, one of the things that is important that we understand about Attica is that they held 40 guards and civilian workers hostage, so law enforcement couldn’t come in. And this clip is about the first night, where they’re actually out in the yard at night for the first time, and there’s, really, as one prisoner says, exuberation. And there’s really a sense that they’re doing something that will change the prison system forever, and also a sense of freedom from not being locked up at night, many for the first time in a long time.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to that clip.

CARLOS ROCHE: The guy next to me was named Raymond Wade. He’s walking around, looking up in the air. It’s dark. I said, “Yo, Raymond Wade. Yo, Ray. You all right?” He said, “Man, I ain’t been out after dark in 22 years.”

LAWRENCE AKIL KILLEBREW: And we was talking, singing songs. It was a festive night. I loved it. I loved it. I mean, I was out in the nighttime looking at the stars. I was drunk. I was happy. You know, I liked it. I was having a good time.

GEORGE CHE NIEVES: And it was good. I felt free. You know, I mean, prison was there, but I felt free. I didn’t have to hear the doors locking. And it was a good feeling that first night.

JAMES ASBURY: When it got dark, and everybody was talking about finding somewhere to sleep, with, you know, don’t sleep alone and, you know, that type of thing. There’s a lot of psychopaths and sociopaths in those facilities, so, you know, you had to protect yourself from your peers even.

ALHAJJI SHARIF: Well, I knew this wasn’t going to last forever. I knew there would be an end to this. But just because we was incarcerated didn’t mean that we were less than human. Somebody had to take a stand.

AMY GOODMAN: A clip from the Oscar-nominated film Attica. So, that’s the first night. If you could talk about the conditions? And let’s be clear: That was September 9th, 1971. It was basically two weeks after George Jackson was killed by prison guards at San Quentin. And talk about the significance, his inspiration for these prisoners, and then what they were protesting, Stanley.

STANLEY NELSON: Yeah, I think one of the things that was important is that this was '71, and so there's protests going on all over the country — you know, the Black Panthers, the Young Lords. The prisoners are reading Malcolm X. And George Jackson is a real hero to the prisoners in Attica for his writings. And when George Jackson was killed, the prisoners just felt that it was the last straw, and they go on a hunger strike. And what they do is, you know, they refuse to eat. And it’s not only the Black prisoners, but it’s the white prisoners and the Puerto Rican prisoners. And that was really different, because one of the things that the prison system did was separate the prisoners by race and kind pitted one race against the other. And so, the death of George Jackson was really an inciting incident in the takeover of Attica.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to Attica, in which the prisoners describe their reasons for taking guards as hostages, why Muslim prisoners were trusted to protect those hostages.

DANIEL SHEPPARD: When we got to the yard with the hostages, we hollered, “We got hostages!” And we had about a thousand men shouting that out. We know when there are hostages, it keep the police from coming in, vamping on us. You got to have hostages. That’s the only — that’s your only leverage.

LEWIS M. STEEL: As long as they had the hostages — well, they didn’t have guns, and they didn’t have this, and they didn’t have that, but they had hostages — and they are your people, and you are responsible for your people. You are responsible to protect your people and do your job, sit down, negotiate with us.

UNIDENTIFIED: You’re getting into the area where the 21 hostages are being held. They’re in that main group.

UNIDENTIFIED: We can’t distinguish them, because the prisoners have taken their clothing away and put prison clothes on them.

DAVID BROSIG: They were blindfolded in a circle in the middle of the yard. They also had guards, inmate guards, that were around them, protecting them.

ALHAJJI SHARIF: And we were seeing them as captives. We see them as people who were under our supervision, so we couldn’t do harm to them. Our understanding of Islam was that you don’t harm a captive. Therefore, it was decided to allow the Muslim brothers to look out for them.

AMY GOODMAN: A clip from the Oscar-nominated documentary Attica. Stanley Nelson, take it from there in these days, the prisoners taking hostages, their demands to be treated as human beings, their call for that observers’ committee, everyone from William Kunstler to David Rothenberg to Clarence Jones, the publisher of the Amsterdam News. Talk about that scene and how they understood they needed protection. We’re just about to talk about what Governor Nelson Rockefeller did.

STANLEY NELSON: Yeah, one of the things that the prisoners realized right away was that because they had hostages, they had a certain amount of control. So, one of the things that they did was invited an observer committee, which included some of the people that you named, because they thought that those people would be sympathetic and honest in the negotiations with the prisoners for their demands.

Another really important thing for the whole incident, and for us as filmmakers, were that the prisoners invited the media in, because they felt that the media would film this whole thing and would be — and that would give them a certain amount of protection, and so that the media would film the treatment of the hostages and know that the hostages — people outside would know that the hostages were treated fairly. And so, for us, as filmmakers, there’s just incredible, incredible footage of the whole uprising, because the media was invited in and kind of given, in many ways, you know, a free range to film the whole incident. That went on for five days.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to this final clip we’ve got of your film Attica, prisoners describing the living arrangements they established during the uprising.

DANIEL SHEPPARD: You took a stick, and you put a sheet over it and pulled it back, and that was your sleeping quarters. By the time guys started having to go to the bathrooms, it was — none were working. The guys that had been to Vietnam and been in the Army, they said, “We’ve got to make a latrine.” They knew what a latrine was. I didn’t know what a latrine was.

INMATE 1: He’s all right. He can walk.

INMATE 2: Give him a little air.

INMATE 3: All right, all right.

INMATE 4: Let’s get you back.


GEORGE CHE NIEVES: There was this brother. And I say “brother.” He was white. They called him Tiny. And he was like a nurse before the Attica rebellion happened. They set up the medical section in the yard for anybody who had any problems to go, and Tiny would take care of them. And the medical attention in the yard was much better than the medical attention we got throughout the years.

LAWRENCE AKIL KILLEBREW: Oh, we had a good time. We was making wine and food outside. It was like a big picnic, like a shantytown, like Deadwood when Buffalo Bill was out.

DANIEL SHEPPARD: Did you ever watch Gunsmoke, the Western? Well, Matt Dillon was the sheriff marshal of Gunsmoke. He kept order. In the yard, we didn’t have a Matt Dillon. Every man was a law unto himself. You did whatever the hell you wanted to do. And there was no order.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s a clip from Attica. If you can then describe, Stanley Nelson, what happened next? As the prisoners thought that they were negotiating, dealing with the hostages, dealing with the observers’ committee, what was Governor Nelson Rockefeller doing in his final act?

STANLEY NELSON: Well, first, I think it’s important to understand that the prisoners had 30 demands, and 28 of those demands, the head of prisons had already met — you know, more toilet paper, more showers, small things like that. So 28 of the 30 demands were met.

And finally, Governor Rockefeller, Nelson Rockefeller, of New York was in charge of the prison system. But, you know, nobody understood that he was on the phone with Richard Nixon, and Richard Nixon was encouraging him not to meet the final demands, not to go up to Attica, because the prisoners were asking for Rockefeller to just come up to the prison. And the observer committee was asking for Rockefeller, “Just come to the prison. You don’t have to go inside. You know, just show some concern.” And Rockefeller refuses to do that, and instead gives an ultimatum and, finally, orders law enforcement, over 500 state troopers and former guards and guards, into Attica with guns and rifles.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about how many people died, how many of them hostages. What was understood then, what was learned later, something that the prisoners continually repeated about who killed the hostages?

STANLEY NELSON: Yeah, 39 people died. Eight or nine hostages were killed. And immediately it comes out in the news, in the national news, in all the reporting, that the hostages had slit — I mean, the inmates had slit the hostages’ throats and killed the hostages. And that’s what’s reported on the national media, you know, after the first day. And, in fact, Richard Nixon, President Richard Nixon, calls Rockefeller to congratulate him on the retaking of the prison.

AMY GOODMAN: As we talk about institutional racism, I wanted to go to a broader question about what’s happening today in the United States with African Americans and the police. You have a film coming up about this, but there are currently two federal hate crimes trials going on in St. Paul, Minnesota. There’s the federal civil rights trial of the three former police officers involved in George Floyd’s murder.

In Georgia, jurors at the hate crimes trial of Ahmaud Arbery’s murderers were shown graphic images of Arbery’s autopsy. One juror has asked the judge if there’s money for counseling available, after hearing the racist language used by the murderers and viewing these images of the damage to Arbery’s body as caused by the two close-range blasts from Travis McMichael’s 12-gauge shotgun.

Then you’ve got Texas, a grand jury indicting 19 Austin police officers on charges of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon for their roles in violently suppressing Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. News of the indictments came just hours after Austin approved a $10 million settlement with two protesters injured by police.

And then you’ve got this video, the New Jersey NAACP calling on the Bridgewater Police Department to remove the officers filmed breaking up a fight by violently arresting a Black teen while allowing an older white teen to remain free. The video is just horrifying, as the white teen is put on a couch and the police officers put a knee on the back of the 14-year-old Black boy, and then they handcuff him.

Stanley Nelson, you’re one of the leading documentarians of the Black American experience. Can you talk about your response to all of this coming together now, not that it hasn’t come together every day in U.S. history?

STANLEY NELSON: Yeah, I mean, I think that one of the things that has happened is that because everybody is walking around with a phone that has a camera, we’re seeing these things videotaped and pictures of these things, and so that we can’t deny it anymore, or the general public can’t deny it, the police can’t deny it in the same way.

We’re just starting a film on the history of African Americans and the police. And I think the one thing we have to understand is these things are not just happening for the first time. These things are being filmed for the first time. From the time of the police evolving from slave catchers, there’s been this very negative relationship between African Americans and the police. The difference is, you know, now we’re seeing it, and we’re seeing it in a way that can be played back, and so that we’re starting to understand it in a different way. And hopefully we’re starting to understand the police in a different way. I think that, in some ways, it’s reflected on Attica, the film that we did on Attica, because people are receiving it in a different way, I mean, as people are, I think, hopefully — a lot of people are less prone to just believe whatever law enforcement says.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to end with a clip of your upcoming film on Frederick Douglass. He celebrated February 14th as his birthday, though the exact date of his birth has not been recorded. I wanted to go to a clip.

FREDERICK DOUGLASS: [voiced by Wendell Pierce] In the summer of 1841, a grand anti-slavery convention was held in Nantucket. I was induced to express the feelings inspired by the occasion and the fresh recollection of the scenes through which I had passed as a slave.

KENNETH B. MORRIS JR.: The abolitionists that were there knew that they had this fugitive slave in the audience, and they asked Frederick, “Will you tell the audience what it was like to be enslaved?”

FREDERICK DOUGLASS: What shall I say of this experience? I have seen the cruelty and brutality of slavery. And I had been subjected to the depths of slave life. I was a graduate from this peculiar institution, with my diploma written on my back.

JOHN STAUFFER: More Americans heard Douglass speak than any other American in the 19th century, with the possible exception of Mark Twain. And it was significant that a former slave was famous.

UNIDENTIFIED: Frederick Douglass understood the power of his literature as a tactic of liberation, a man born enslaved who rose to become a man of growth, of self-mastery.

FARAH JASMINE GRIFFIN: Frederick Douglass has a very clear idea of what becoming means. He is becoming an orator. He’s becoming a world leader. He’s becoming a statesman. And for him, becoming is an ever-unfolding process that he sees as self-creation.

AMY GOODMAN: The teaser for the forthcoming documentary Becoming Frederick Douglass, courtesy of Maryland Public Television. That’s coming out in the fall, as well as a documentary on Harriet Tubman. Stanley Nelson, we have just 30 seconds. Your career has spanned more than 30 years, more than 30 amazing documentaries. How does it feel to be nominated for your first Oscar?

STANLEY NELSON: It feels great. You know, I mean, it feels great. I think, you know, one of the things that’s so wonderful about it is that more people will see Attica. And for some people, the fact that we’re nominated is validation and a reason to see Attica. And that’s what we want. You know, I think that that’s really what —

AMY GOODMAN: Well, it is long overdue. Thank you so much, Stanley Nelson.

That does it for our show. A very happy birthday to Neil Shibata! I’m Amy Goodman. Please stay safe.

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