top of page
  • NYS Writers Institute

Albany Film Festival spotlight: Screening of "Attica" and discussion with director Stanley Nelson

“Stanley Nelson’s stirring, scalding documentary about the 1971 Attica prison uprising, is an essential film that can now stand as a definitive vision of that epochal event.” – Variety

Join us at the Albany Film for a screening of the Oscar-nominated "Attica" followed by a conversation with director Stanley Nelson and executive producer Marcia Smith.

The film is nominated for a 2022 Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary

2:30 - 4:30 p.m., Screening

4:45 - 5:30 p.m., Discussion

Both in the Campus Center West Auditorium

University at Albany

Free and open to the public

On Sept. 9, 1971, over 1,200 inmates at the Attica correctional facility in Attica, NY, seized the yard at the maximum-security prison, took more than three dozen guards and civilian employees hostage, and demanded more humane treatment and better conditions. For five days, the world watched as TV news cameras covered the story from both outside and inside the prison, as journalists and a team of negotiators converged at the scene. But when law enforcement was ordered by New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller to retake Attica, the resulting massacre by state police left 29 inmates and 10 hostages dead. Before the smoke from the tear gas cleared, police tortured inmates behind the walls. No charges were ever brought against authorities for the killings of inmates and guards. It was the largest prison rebellion in U.S. history.

Now, on the 50th anniversary of the Attica uprising, Emmy-winning director Stanley Nelson and producer and co-director Traci A. Curry will examine one of the most shocking incidents in the nation’s history in the extraordinary, in-depth documentary Attica. Through original interviews with former inmates, family members of the hostages, and those who witnessed it first-hand, Nelson and Curry bring us back to a moment that resonated for decades, utilizing hundreds of hours of footage and never-before-seen archival tapes from inside the prison. ATTICA captures the personalities, politics, emotions, and tragedy that stands as a wake-up call —then and now — about the need for prison reform and the responsibilities of justice.

This powerful film was made to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1971 uprising at the Attica Correctional Facility in Attica, N.Y. The violent five-day standoff between mostly Black and Latino inmates and law enforcement gripped the American public and resulted in acrimonious recrimination and protracted lawsuits. Drawing upon archival material and interviews with survivors, witnesses, and government officials, the documentary underscores an ongoing need for criminal justice reform and conversations about systemic racism.

Awards and recognition

  • Nominated for Best Documentary Feature for the 94th Academy Awards®

  • DGA Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Documentary

  • Stanley & Karen Kramer Award for Social Justice, African American Film Critics Association (AAFCA)

  • Nominated for an NAACP Image Award for Best Documentary (Film)

  • Named one of the Top 5 Documentaries of 2021 by the National Board of Review

  • Nominated for 3 Critics Choice Documentary Awards: Best Documentary Feature, Best Director, and Best Historical or Biographical Documentary

  • DOC NYC 2021 Short List

  • Opening Night film for the 2021 Doc Stories Film Series – SFFILM

  • Opening Night film for the 2021 TIFF Docs Program (World Premiere)

About Stanley Nelson

Stanley Nelson is an American documentary filmmaker and a MacArthur Fellow known as a director, writer and producer of documentaries examining African-American history and experiences. He is a recipient of the 2013 National Humanities Medal from President Obama.

He has won three Primetime Emmy Awards. Nelson and his wife, Marcia A. Smith, formed the nonprofit documentary film production company Firelight Media, whose films include the critically acclaimed 2003 documentary entitled "The Murder of Emmett Till."

His newest film "Attica" is nominated for best documentary feature. Other recent films include "Crack: Cocaine, Corruption & Conspiracy for Netflix; the Emmy-nominated "Tulsa Burning: The 1921 Race Massacre" for the History Channel; and "Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool," which became Nelson’s 10th Sundance Film Festival premiere and first Grammy nomination for Best Music Film in 2020.

About Marcia Smith

Marcia Smith is president and co-founder of Firelight Media, which produces documentary films, provides artistic and financial support to emerging filmmakers of color, and builds impact campaigns to connect documentaries to audiences and social justice advocates. Under her leadership, Firelight Media was honored with a MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions.

Attica documentary tells the story of America’s deadliest prison riot

Rage over living conditions in the prison escalated into a five-day rebellion that ended violently as state officials retook the prison. It was a defining moment in American history.

By Patrice Gaines, published on NBC News Nov. 6, 2021

The images are haunting: In black and white film and photographs, naked men, most of them Black, some of them bloodied, all stand in a prison yard with their hands on their heads as white uniformed guards point weapons at them.

Moments like this fill the new documentary “Attica,” by MacArthur Fellow and Emmy-winning filmmaker Stanley Nelson. The film, premiering Saturday on Showtime, tells the story of the bloodiest prison rebellion in U.S. history, five decades after it happened. The protest’s leaders insisted on bringing journalists and filmmakers into “the yard,” meaning that 50 years later Nelson’s documentary includes actual footage from the rebellion and the state’s brutal retaking of the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York in 1971.

“We’ve only screened the film four times, and every time the audience sits in stunned silence,” Nelson said. “It’s not a film you can applaud for. I think the best description of the film for me was from someone who said that it was not a film, that it was an experience.” Read more

‘It didn’t have to be that way.’ Attica documentary captures definitive vision of standoff

The documentary addresses the action of authorities and prisoners head on, and presents familiar footage anew in a film already garnering praise.

Gary Craig, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, Oct. 28, 2021

In the final moments of the new documentary "Attica," from acclaimed filmmaker Stanley Nelson, one of the men who tried to negotiate a peaceful settlement to the 1971 Attica prison uprising looks into the camera and says, emphatically, "It didn't have to be that way."

That man, Clarence Jones, is now 90 years old. At the time of the riot, he was the editor and part owner of The New York Amsterdam News, one of the nation's oldest newspapers for Black audiences.

He along with others — The New York Times columnist Tom Wicker and civil rights lawyer William Kunstler among them — had been sought out by inmates as a team of "observers" to oversee negotiations between prisoners and state and corrections officials. The hope was for a resolution to the inmate standoff without loss of life.

Instead, the observers watched, helplessly, as State Police stormed the prison on Sept. 13, 1971 and fatally shot 29 inmates and 10 Attica employees who had been held hostage by the prisoners.

Nelson's visceral documentary for the Showtime channel can perhaps be summed up by those seven words from Clarence Jones — "It didn't have to be that way." After 50 years, it may be difficult to believe that a historic upheaval revisited as often as the Attica prison riot can continue to shock, yet, in Nelson's able hands, it does. Read more


bottom of page