Out of The Box

Red-diaper baby gets the Attica documentary she deserves

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Because Al Pacino shouts it so passionately in Sidney Lumet’s 1975 Dog Day Afternoon, the word “Attica” has remained in the American vocabulary as a rallying cry of protest against repression. It became such a resonant signifier of life-or-death desperation that in 2014 Wussy named a song after it—a love song that embodies and articulates the kind of anguish that animates Pacino’s wails as he tries desperately to pay for his lover’s sex change operation by ransoming bank hostages while ignoring the historical event that engendered it.

Michael Hull’s new HBO Max documentary Betrayal at Attica is an altogether different kind of film that excavates that event: its life-or-death becomes literal as it revisits the heinously suppressed September 1971 prison rebellion at the New York state penitentiary of that name, which fixed the word “Attica” so vividly in the public mind that Lumet didn’t hesitate to hook his film to it. Anyway, by 1975 public memory of the rebellion had blurred drastically, in part because Nelson Rockefeller’s state government had done all it could to obscure the facts and in part because they were too gruesome to think about. So with the 50th anniversary of the rebellion upon us, the inevitable reconsiderations are enough to make you appreciate the news business’s weakness for birthday parties.

True, in her obscure 1974 documentary Attica, young Cinda Firestone used TV news footage and a healthy complement of interviews to lay out the brutal facts credibly and coherently. After a decent interval, three cinematic fictionalizations followed as well. And soon Showtime will air a film that’s also called Attica by award-winning Black documentarian Stanley Nelson, who will reexamine evidence and interview survivors with what it’s reasonable to expect will be balanced outrage. But though Hull admires the Firestone film and expects the best of Nelson, Betrayal at Attica is rather different from either for one reason above all: Liz Fink. Then 29, Fink joined the Attica Brothers Legal Defense team two weeks after earning her law degree in 1974 and was still leading it decades later, when she and her sizable complement of clients finally won a piddling $8 million settlement in what began as $2.8 billion suit.

You don’t have to take my word about self-described “red diaper baby” turned legendary leftist legal eagle Elizabeth Fink, whose death at 70 in 2015 occasioned a lionizing Times obit. A nonstop reader who knew more about eating in Chinatown than anyone I’ve met this side of Robert Sietsema, Liz had a blunt, jocose, spellbinding way of talking, usually about politics and/or her clients but sometimes too about the novels she scarfed up, that is reason enough for Hull to let her carry his narrative. Another is that her command of the details still has no peer. A third is that Hull intended this film not only as justice for the Attica Brothers but as a tribute to Liz Fink the person, who he loved as did many others of her numerous friends. And then there was what I’ll just call The Box, although actually there was more than one.

Part of the state government’s systematic obfuscation of the troublesome Attica matter was the claim that somehow its records of the case had gotten lost. And symptomatic of Fink’s stubborn and resourceful legal brilliance is that somehow she figured out where the box of records was—and then “stole” it, she tells Hull, only soon she judiciously softens the verb to “expropriated.” In addition, she found considerable paper documentation in another location. The Box contained hundreds of photos and 60 hours of videotape, the latter divided into three main categories: (1) footage documenting an early investigation helmed by an NYU law school honcho, (2) footage documenting interviews with both prisoners and guards who survived the armed, sadistic September 13 crackdown on a protest that had begun September 9, resulting in the deaths of 10 hostages and 29 inmates, and (3) footage of the crackdown itself that also included footage from all four days.

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It should surprise no one that this footage is excruciating to watch, or that it’s rendered more so by Fink’s commentary. Fink insists and most other accounts agree that although one guard died accidentally in the September 9 uprising, the safety of the other guards held hostage was a priority for most of the nearly 1300 inmates who occupied D Yard for four days. Black Muslim prisoners were active in keeping the peace, but the head of security was a formerly apolitical hustler named Frank “Big Black” Smith, who post-prison would work for Fink as an investigator. When Rockefeller’s henchmen moved in to end the uprising on the 13th, however, hostage safety went out the window. As Fink puts it: “Inmates couldn’t believe that the state would kill its own and the state couldn’t believe that the inmates wouldn’t kill everyone.” But she also emphasizes that even if we accept that by then negotiations had reached an impasse, four-term governor Rockefeller, who Fink believes was “horrified that these people thought had any right to oppose him,” had two options for taking more aggressive action: the National Guard and the state police. The soldiers, she’s convinced, had the will and training to minimize violence. Rockefeller chose the cops.

Fink ended up spending a lot of time in Wyoming County, where Attica’s so-called “Correctional Facility” is located, and she’s not a fan: this is a county in the far-west of New York State that Trump would carry 75-25 and that still gets federal civil rights funding due to a five percent black population almost entirely imprisoned and hence denied the vote. All state troopers do there, she tells Hull, is write traffic tickets. So this was a rare chance for “crazy white people filled with race hate” to kill at will. The Box provides more than enough brutal photographic evidence of the consequences of Rockefeller’s decision, which Fink likens to the 1914 massacre of 21 Ludlow, Colorado, coal workers at the behest of Nelson’s grandfather, John D. Rockefeller. Their name tags taped over, the cops were the embodiment of what Fink reminds us is called “depraved indifference” as in just six minutes they inundated D Yard with 4500 rounds of buckshot, killing nine guards held hostage and severely wounding a tenth who died later, supposedly because by then prisoners were holding at their throats scissors and even swords that were somehow never recovered. Also among the dead, of course, were inmates, 28 of them, with the rest then stripped naked and tortured. Their bones were broken; they were beaten on their feet and faces and genitals; they were warned that if hot bullet casings placed upright on their flesh fell to the ground they’d be shot; they were forced to run a hideous gauntlet on the way to cells where they’d then lie for hours or days without treatment.

In The Box Hull found visual documentation of these atrocities, both stills and motion pictures. But almost as hard to take is heart-rending testimony, sometimes relatively contemporaneous but often from years later, in which survivors of these atrocities recall them for the camera. Whether tough men or nonviolent criminals—one of the dead was a teenager in on probation for joyriding because his family couldn’t make his fine—they were so palpably traumatized by what they experienced that day that their interviews here are almost as painful as the September 13 footage. One of the longest and most affecting is by none other than Frank “Big Black” Smith, an engaging and imposing guy who I met a few times when he was working for Fink—and could never have imagined being reduced to such pain and, strange though the word feels as I type it, humiliation.

If this strikes you as a flick you may just skip, I get it; I felt obliged to watch it twice through to write about it, and the second time my wife chose to stay in the bedroom and read. Moreover, it is safe to guess the Nelson film will assemble testimony that corroborates most if not all of what I just tried to sum up in written language, and that much of that corroboration will be gut-wrenching. But since Attica’s 50th anniversary coincides with a moment in history when racist law enforcement is a hot issue that may once again slip from our grasp, I would argue that Betrayal at Attica’s sensationalism—a term I use advisedly to stress how vivid Hull’s version and indeed vision of these awful events turns out to be—is tonic. Progressives’ and just plain ordinary young people’s renewed or sometimes freshly held conviction that racism in law enforcement is an injustice that must be mitigated has engendered a reaction that’s all too real. Cops are making a comeback; the economic fallout of the pandemic has supposedly engendered a rise in petty crime that is being exploited to frighten the middle class. We need a booster shot. Betrayal at Attica provides one.

Also, Liz Fink is gone now. This is your chance to spend time in the same room with her gripping, irrepressible voice. Which is definitely something worth doing.