The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Hold Your Fire.
The film took place in my old neighborhood—I lived a block and a half from where those events took place, right on the J line. It’s a major intersection, a very busy hub. To me, this is story of survival, full of miracles. Tell us about developing the film.
Stefan Forbes: Yeah, this central space in Brooklyn where this all happened was described to me by the cops as, this wasn’t Broadway with the big lights and the stars, this was the Broadway with the dead rats and the dirty needles. I originally thought, that’s dramatic, what an epic framing for my film. When I started making this film, I went there with my friend of twenty years, Fab 5 Freddy, and he was like, this was where we did our shopping, this was our community, I got my Boy Scout uniform in that store. There were storeowners holding on against the urban blight of the 70s and it was a place where everyone congregated. That started inoculating me against these other narratives to the story. When I first discovered the story, I thought, it’s The French Connection, it’s Dog Day Afternoon, it’s Serpico, all these gritty movies that I loved from the 70s, but I wondered, can we tell this in the manner of the 2020s? Can we make other voices heard and listen to everybody? We pay a lot of lip service to pluralism in this society so I thought, yeah, that’ll be easy! But when you actually try to construct a narrative, it’s incredibly challenging. The story was so long and people kept contradicting each other so much. I couldn’t help but feel, well what did happen? We had to do so much work and show so many cuts and really labor in the edit to create balance between these different voices and really welcome people in and to somehow find a way in the filmic space for these stories to co-exist, and for people to talk cinematically in a way they don’t normally do in real life. In Harvey’s [Schlossberg] book, we got a cop point of view, and it was terrific, but I knew I had to go even deeper and talk to all the people involved. I was going up to Attica to interview Dawud [Rahman] and I had thought that Shu’aib Raheem was dead. There was a lot of legwork to put together these conflicting perspectives.
Would we believe Shu’aib if there weren’t a white guy backing up his story?
Jerry Riccio contradicted himself at times … the things he said he would do, what he was aiming to do, what he actually did and how he looks back on it now really speaks to the complexity of human beings. How confident were you in his recollection? It’s all about “the way we saw it,” regardless of what actually happened.
SF: I was leery of Jerry’s point of view and had only seen him in the press as someone who had detested the gunmen and wanted them locked up forever. I was shocked when I started talking to him that he didn’t carry a lot of rancor towards them. One of the moments that everyone comments on is when Jerry learns that Dawud had been in prison for forty-seven years. He’s shocked and responds with empathy. And I wondered, why did I get such a wrong picture of him? One of the things I learned was that victim impact statements are completely stage-managed by the police union. What you see in the paper is planted by the PBA and they make sure that everything is basically a PSA for punitive criminal justice rather than restorative, and rather than victim-centered. They don’t care what victims want; they believe in punishment and they believe in this dominant patriarchal hierarchical masculine model of punishment and violence from policing through criminal justice. It’s not what communities want and it’s making our whole country less safe while not holding perpetrators of violence accountable in any way. Jerry was fascinating to me on many levels, but also, I was shocked at how much he critiqued the police. He said, “they told you they were shooting high, but that was a lie.” Again and again he contradicted the official version of the story. I was amazed because I knew that Shu’aib, as a man of color, his word needed to be verified by someone else. And here’s a hostage who you think would be his enemy, but you’re seeing him support Shu’aib’s point of view—Riccio is co-signing what the Black guy is saying against the cops, who are supposed to be the white guy’s ally. When we talk about race in this country, we often just do it on the surface, especially for white people. We know how to be sort of crafty, and avoid it while putting a black square in our Twitter, and we use a couple bits of lingo like “allyship” and then get away from this conversation as fast as we can because it’s not a safe place for us and we worry we can only do wrong. I really believe in messy conversations, in engaging people a little deeper, where they can’t just put a label on something and they need to search their soul about race and masculinity and who we believe. Would we believe Shu’aib if there weren’t a white guy backing up his story? I’m trying to get into some more nuanced and messy stuff with all of my interviews.
A lot of people have discomfort with this film because there aren’t easy answers. I’m asking the viewer to put a lens of empathy on it and to see that some of the people causing this violence epidemic in our society come from unexpected places. Research shows that the way they police can be a driver of violence. We need to look past this good guy/bad guy rhetoric that the cops themselves love. They love calling people bad guys. A lot of times the progressives call the cops bad guys and see them as evil without acknowledging that officers of many races and cultures are working for change and don’t have a voice in this authoritarian top-down institution. We need to look at people as individuals, and hold them accountable as individuals. Many cops are driven by trauma, and they say in the film, “first you grieve, then you want to go shoot someone.” This is cops in their own words and I thought it was very important to show their emotional wounding so we can begin to unpack some of what’s gone so wrong in America.
Was there any reluctance on the part of Shu’aib to participate in this film?
SF: I didn’t even ask to film him until we had known each other a while. We would go out and talk and I’d hear stories. At one point he turns to me and asks, “when are you going to start interviewing me?” I asked him if he wanted to me and he said, “I’m not getting any younger. I’ve been waiting forty-seven years to tell my side of the story. Let’s start.” He had seen some of my other work and wanted to get into it. My goal is to really let people talk, let them speak and engage in dialogues we’re not really having in America. He watched my last film, Boogie Man, and he said “I see how you let these conservatives talk, and you create a dialogue between them and people on the left that isn’t happening in society.” That’s what I’m trying to do. We’re not having these conversations. I see the film as a conversation between these warring elements that can break up the established head-butting we do in the media and add some nuance and really let people talk. Shu’aib was really interested in being in part of that.