The Icarus Films September 3, 2019 DVD release of the 2001 documentary "Ghosts of Attica" does the Icarus history of releasing thought-provoking documentaries proud. Every DVD in this portion of the Icarus catalog achieves the genre ideal of being equally entertaining and educational.
In this case, narrator Susan Sarandon has the guards and the prisoners who were there tell the story of the September 1971 Attica uprising. We also learn of the decades-long effort of the prisoners to receive compensation for the harm that they sustained during that event.
Much of the film revolves around self-described Frank "Big Black" Smith, who is drafted into being a leader of the prisoners when (still highly relevant) demands for things such as religious freedom and being paid minimum wage escalates into the inmates temporarily taking over the asylum. The vintage photos and film footage of the prisoners when order is being restored perfectly illustrates why they are pursuing monetary damages.
We also meet Smith employer Liz Frank, who is the lead attorney for the prisoners. This stems from intense empathy for those guests of the state dating to the aftermath of the aforementioned events.
On the surface, a $12 million award to the prisoners seems to be a major victory. One-third of that going to the attorneys is an accurately cynical example of the United States legal system. On top of that, this award understandably prompts resentment among the guards who endured "troubles" during the uprising. A talking head properly notes that asserting that the workers' compensation system provides the guards an adequate remedy is absurd.
This is not to mention the inevitable appeal by New York.
The rest of the story that makes this incident documentary-worthy is that the then-Governor Rockefeller ordering the retaking of the prison with extreme prejudice comes back to bite him as to his bid for the vice-presidency. Suffice it to say that a cover-up is at least attempted.
These inter-related elements are intriguing in that they start with one of many cases in which the disenfranchised aggressively act to become enfranchised, the powers-that-be come down hard, both sides try to win the hearts and minds of the American public, and all feel that they have a right to compensation.
The underlying theme is the highly adversarial tone of interactions between the "haves" and the "have nots" that is becoming deafening during what may be an even more divisive era that the Civil War and the highly contentious late '60s. Clearly, we cannot all just get along and cannot rely on the folks who control the message to tell it like it is.
The DVD bonus features are and audio recording of Frank and more archival images from the uprising.