Written and directed by Stefan Forbes, Brooklyn, 1972, Shu’aib Raheem tried to steal guns for self-defence, starting the longest hostage siege in NYPD history. NYPD psychologist Harvey Schlossberg fought to reform police use of violence and save lives by using words, not guns.
Diving into Hold Your Fire there is one key choice made by the filmmakers which will likely divide audiences, which is to get the opinion of the officers working that day. It opens up the question of whether you see this as giving a platform to clearly prejudiced cops to voice their racist beliefs, or it highlights their discriminatory views. If it’s the former then it may dampen your experience of the documentary but if you take it as the latter, it’s incredulous to see just how unaware they are of the offensive nature of their comments. It puts a blinding spotlight on their racism, and how they still hold those views today, some statements they make may literally drop your jaw. It perfectly demonstrates how police officers can operate under such an intentional ignorance of their own prejudices, and how that dangerously impacts high pressure situations with people of any minority, no matter the crime.
One of the great ways that the film further demonstrates that ignorance is with its editing. It moves cleverly from one perspective to the other, the robbers and those who were in the store, to the police and the difference between them is shocking. The amount of misinformation and mishandling of the case by the police is beyond belief, particularly the wildly quick, and false, assumption of the group’s political motivations. There’s a long list of reasons why this case got blown wildly out of proportion and almost all of them were due to the police’s reaction becoming irrational and reckless because the perpetrators were Black. Of course, the opinion of the police is that the criminals were being completely unresponsive and uncooperative but thankfully, the third party view of the store owner and hostages clear that up definitively.
The impact of this appalling information is additionally enhanced by the impressive way that the progression of the film and its revelations are handled. It moves at the perfect pace, it’s constantly adding to itself, deepening the understanding of those involved and widening the perspective. It’s gripping and engrossing, exploring not only the racial discrimination which led to the fast deteriorating situation but the impact it had on everyone involved, particularly the hostages. As well as exploring the introduction of hostage negotiation, the sheerly negative reaction and refusal to accept it as a tactic is wild. It keenly demonstrates that the police were more willing to put innocent lives in danger than they were to try talk to criminals, to reach a peaceful resolution. There’s a lot of emotions at work in this film, at any point it can go from touching, harrowing, enraging to leaving you speechless. Overall, it’s simply heart-breaking to think of how many people have lost their lives or were put in danger because of the same discriminatory attitudes of the police and their unwillingness to accept alternatives to violence. A factor which despite being talked about in the context of an event fifty years ago, is still painfully relevant.
Hold Your Fire is captivating from start to finish. It’s almost unbelievable that former police officers present for the event actually agreed to take part in the documentary, massively exposing their prejudices and how clearly they influenced their decisions. There’s a fascinating mix of perspectives, to give a wider view of the situation and how drastically it was blown out of proportion. Some of the information revealed is somehow both hard to believe and not surprising, the deep-rooted racism of the police is well-known and yet hearing first hand the lies they created and the use of language is still shocking.