TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2021 REVIEW! Hold Your Fire is an incredible documentary that recounts the hostage situation and standoff between the New York City Police Department and four black men who tried to rob a sporting goods store for guns in 1973. More generally, writer/director Stefan Forbes explores the origin of hostage negotiations.
January 19, 1973, four black Muslim men — Shu’aib Raheem, Dawud Rahman, Yusef Abdallah Almussadig, and Salih Ali Abdullah — walked into a sporting goods store in Brooklyn, pointed a pistol at the clerk, and told him to pack bags full of guns and hand them over. As they were trying to leave, a cop appeared. Soon, other officers surrounded the building, and a standoff ensued. Twelve hostages were trapped inside.
This followed on the heels of the Attica prison riot in 1971, where prisoners took control of a prison block for days. After tiring of negotiating, political pressure resulted in police storming the facility, resulting in the deaths of 43 people, including 10 of the hostages, the latter of whom were killed by police shooting randomly. Racism played a massive role, as the officers were white, most of the prisoners were black, and some of the officers were recorded on video shouting “White power!” and referring to prisoners by the n-word. Following that, the robbery portrayed in Dog Day Afternoon resulted in an embarrassment for the city.
“…standoff between the New York City Police Department and four black men who tried to rob a sporting goods store…”
Race and the politics of the time are clearly a big part of the story presented in Hold Your Fire. The men trying to do the robbery were Muslim but in opposition to the Nation of Islam. They felt threatened and harassed by its members and decided they needed guns to defend themselves. They never intended to get into a hostage situation, but after Attica, they feared being gunned down by police if they tried to surrender. Tensions between the police and the community were extraordinary, and the police feared a riot if they made the wrong move.
The culture of the NYPD was a macho one, with the overwhelming feeling that police do not negotiate with criminals. This is corroborated by remarkably candid interviews with several former NYPD officers involved in the events, calling those who would negotiate “fruity.” No doubt given the abject failure of “raid no matter the cost,” Police Commissioner Patrick Murphy wanted to try a different approach, calling on a former traffic cop with a Ph.D. in psychology, Harvey Schlossberg, to try and negotiate with the hostage-takers.
Hold Your Fire features an interview with Schlossberg, who died in 2021, who explains his thinking at the time, along with others who put the approach in context. Forbes also interviews two of the robbers, Raheem and Rahman, both of whom are clearly remorseful, as they explain their wayward lives and faulty decision-making up to that point. This is intercut with footage of some of their hostages or their family members, including the clerk, who had secretly recovered a stashed gun while being held.
Hold Your Fire is well constructed. It is as suspenseful as a top-notch thriller and has the added allure of being true and impactful. The filmmaker goes to great lengths to bring out the humanity in all of the subjects. It is shocking to see some of the participants so open, honest, and vulnerable in dealing with the events of nearly 50 years ago and how their decisions haunt them to this day. Some have drastically changed their outlook, while others haven’t. Though the events happened 48 years ago, as we grapple with racial justice and police reform, the subject matter is as relevant as ever.
Hold Your Fire screened at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.
"…as suspenseful as a top-notch thriller..."