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[TIFF] ‘Attica’ review: Sober reminder that racial divide is not new

Powerful doc takes its time.

Attica is a documentary that looks at the bloodiest prison riot in United States history. Now screening at the Toronto International Film Festival, the film uses interviews, footage, and audio recordings to retell the events of the five days. The Attica Prison riot occurred on September 9, 1971. The four days following saw intense negotiations between the inmates and officials on the outside. The situation ended on September 13 when New York State Police stormed the prison.

There have been many depictions of Attica in popular culture. This documentary comes at an especially explosive time in history. Relations between Black people and police are as tense as they have ever been. This film has the opportunity to add its voice and remind people this is not a new problem. If anything, the problem has constantly been brought to the spotlight before being ushered away. 

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Attica hints at racial tensions, but it is not until about an hour and a half in that the film explores them. These moments are easily the most powerful. Pictures of the inmates being tortured and footage of guards screaming “White power!” are sickening. Interviews include inmates and the families of hostages. The outpouring of emotion is expected, but is still difficult to watch. There is a lot of tears and pain and the passion can be seen in everyone. These accounts help raise Attica above a simple retelling.

The emotion is more the exception than the rule.

Still, it is surprising how cut and dry things can get. While there are some moving interviews, the majority of them are just retellings of the riot. This is needed to educate those who are not familiar, but it also covers about 90 minutes of the two hour runtime. This does not make Attica any less interesting, but it also does not make it much different. The more emotional parts are more the exception than the rule.

Many films have been saved in their final moments. They are fairly ordinary up until a remarkable stretch at the end makes them remarkable. Attica falls into this category. It is a fascinating, if standard, documentary about one of the most violent days in American history for its first two acts. As it winds down, it delves into a moving look at race relations between Black people and police that is still relevant today.

The Toronto International Film Festival takes place virtually and in person from September 9 – September 18

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