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Film Reviews | Regular Feature Ghosts ofAttica makes it clear that many prisoners in New York's state penitentiary were well-connected to the larger political and social debates taking place worldwide in the 1960s. As one former resident points out in the film, Attica was a reflection of the larger society. Within the inmate population there were groups ofBlack Panthers, the Weather Underground, Black Muslims , and "the Puerto Rican thing." Inmates had connected their conditions in prison to the plightofdisenfranchisedpeoples around the globe, and their transformation from non-violent protest to violent direct action mirrors the move from "days of hope" to "days of rage" within the civil rights and anti-war movements. As the film documents, Attica inmates had struggled to improve their prison conditions for months before the riot. Prisoners signed and submitted petitions to various state agencies and made recommendations about improved prison life, but their calls had been unanswered. In September 1971, when prisoners heard that the famous black Californian prison inmate and protester George Jackson had died, they organized a silent mass protest. When the inmates filed into the mess hall for breakfast they refused to eat and sat silently; by the end of the day they had severely beaten one guard, taken several others hostage and commandeered the prison. For five days the inmates organized, made demands, and met with lawyers, journalists and state officials . On the fifth day, Governor Rockefeller ordered in the state police. Troopers seemingly shot indiscriminately—in nine minutes they fired 1,600 bullets—killing twenty-nine inmates and 10 guards. The film spends most of its ninety minutes trying desperately to contextualize them. Though the state's re-taking of the prison is central to the story, the film is successful because of its ability to put the inmates , the guards and their legacy at the center of the narrative. In fact, the documentary intentionally complicates the chronology of events by beginning not with a long retelling of the Attica rebellion, but with an introduction to the former inmates' legal battle for justice in 2000. Contextualizing the 1971 events with the modern courtroom drama forces the audience to think about the riot and its aftermath as one event, inseparable from the state's determined effort to "end" the story. The narration is provided by actress and prison activist Susan Sarandon, though her narration does not play a major role in the story. Instead, the film is guided basically by Frank "Big Black" Smith, head ofthe inmates' security team during the rebellion; Mike Smith, anAttica guard taken hostage by the inmates; and Liz Fink, head of the legal team that worked successfully to obtain financial damages for the prisoners . Interviews with these three characters frame the basic arguments about the events of 1971 and its legacy. At the core of all three peoples' accounts is the story of how they came to be at the center of one of the most bloody and infamous protests. The Catonsville Nine, on the other hand, premeditated their entry into radical protest. Schooled variously in theology, international affairs, and personal spiritual discovery, the activists that entered the Maryland draft office, grabbed files and burned them were themselves unlikely radicals. Philip Berrigan, who died in December 2002, was a Catholic priest who could not reconcile his faith with his country's dealings inVietnam. Though Berrigan and his brother Daniel are interviewed and figure prominently in the film, their fascinating history of activism are not portrayed outside of their connection to the Catonsville incident. Several of the other protestors are interviewed and discuss theirownmotivationforjoining the anti-war movement in such a bold fashion. Overall, however , the film's depiction ofevents ofMay 1968, the interviews and the Sixties news footage do not together provide either a coherent retelling of the story or substantive analysis of it. Though Investigation ofa Flame is billed as an "anti-documentary ," that term seems only to apply to the aesthetics of the camera work and editing, not the film's overall form or message. It is a fairly standard documentary, consisting of a mix of news footage, contemporary and archived interviews, and voice over. There are seemingly incongruent color-saturated shots offlowers...


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pp. 67-69
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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