In January 1973, four Black men held up a Bushwick sporting goods store, an incident which inadvertently snowballed into a two-day police siege with 11 hostages and a dead officer in tow. Initially seeking guns and ammunition, one of the men pointed a .25 automatic at store owner Jerry Riccio’s head and instructed him to fill a duffel bag with weapons. When a passerby called the police, the men panicked, taking the surrounding customers hostage. The botched robbery soon became a veritable Dog Day Afternoon standoff (a year after the actual robbery by John Wojtowicz), one narrativized through a series of first-person accounts and archival footage in Stefan Forbes’ contradictory documentary Hold Your Fire.
The film broaches the 1973 Brooklyn hostage incident through interviews with former NYPD officers, hostage-takers, hostages and negotiators. What initially appeared to be a baseless crime—falsely cited as a “a holy crusade,” as the men were Sunni Muslims—is gradually explained by ringleader Shu’aib Raheem to have been an attempt at self-defense. The men wanted to acquire firepower to protect their families in the wake of violence in activist circles and the brutalizing of Black neighborhoods by police. Forbes notably cites the Attica Prison riot, the Wojtowicz robbery and even the Munich Olympics massacre as commensurate cultural touchstones which called into question violence, spectatorship and policing. The significance of the 1973 Brooklyn hostage incident, though, hinges largely on an institutional shift in the police’s preferred mode of rescuing hostages.
Enter Harvey Schlossberg. At the time of the robbery, Schlossberg was a traffic cop with a PhD in psychology, described with almost caricaturistic introversion. He minded his business and never quite fit alongside the patrolman machismo of his peers. Schlossberg was a self-proclaimed “Jiminy Cricket,” due to his sympathetic pangs within a body of law enforcement severely lacking in conscience. It was his suggestion to speak to the offenders, rather than open fire on them, as the police (on-site, in helicopters and in a military tank which trundled down the block shortly after the first shootout) originally intended to.
The scholar versus warrior dichotomy was internalized by law enforcement at the time, who advocated greatly for “fighting fire with fire” and “going out in a blaze of glory.” Unsurprisingly, they did not see the merits of Schlossberg’s proposed conciliation, though it soon became increasingly apparent that communicative methods, combined with firearm discipline, could be implemented to mitigate fallout in hostage situations. The gravity of this shift, however, is inflated within the context of the film; it’s framed as though Schlossberg curbed police brutality altogether, or that institutional violence is a relic of the past.
Structurally, the documentary feels similarly scattered, leapfrogging from accounts by the perpetrators to the hostages, police, negotiators and other legal affiliates before settling into its ostensible rhythm as a précis on the “birthplace of hostage negotiation.” The concept is fascinating, especially to an audience potentially unfamiliar with a time before negotiation tactics. But the contradictory retellings spliced with former policemen’s goading comments on violence and Blackness obscure the film’s informative potential. Instead of sticking to its late thesis, Hold Your Fire often feels like a clump of confessions, some remorseful and others entirely glib.
In its attempt to remain diplomatic, refraining from overt bias against the police or perpetrators, Hold Your Fire overcommits to a “both sides” approach. Forbes punctuates every seemingly earnest account of racial and socioeconomic plight by the four men with toxic chatter from former NYPD officers. The Black men are shown repeatedly atoning for the act, while the white ex-cops spew the same racist rhetoric they enforced at the time of the standoff, repeatedly throwing Black radicals under the bus for the missteps on both sides. The tacit understanding between the all-white police interviewees was that they were responding to the incident with appropriate force given the militancy of Black power groups at the time. They notably refrain from commenting on the brutality inflicted on Black communities by white officers.
“If you had a blue uniform on, you were a target,” says one former officer. Another chimes in soon after with, “Cops aren’t racist.” Al Sheppard, an ex-patrolman for the NYPD, proudly declares, “I think we over-define racism as something bad, when, in reality, we want to be with our own kind.”
These inflammatory sentiments smack of indifference on the part of the film’s creative team, who opted to platform such beliefs in the name of cultural context. All the more disappointing that—in a film with the potential to act as part summa on negotiation tactics, part historical text and part latter-day parable on police violence—Hold Your Fire prioritizes scoring easy points on bigoted cops through uncritical depiction alone. Their barely filtered racism might speak volumes, but its treatment offers nothing new to the unabating matter of anti-Black institutional violence within America. Even more curious, then, is that the film’s false balance extends to the financials: A portion of Hold Your Fire’s proceeds go to both The Osborne Association, for individuals adversely affected by incarceration, and POPPA, an NYPD mental health support network.
Hold Your Fire certainly illustrates an oft-forgotten slice of history, assembling aestheticized archival footage of tense crowds and police in peacoats scattering like ants on the streets of New York. But through clumsy structuring and skin-deep attempts to appease both sides of the coin, Forbes does not heed his own advice, misfiring entirely.
Director: Stefan Forbes
Writer: Stefan Forbes
Release Date: May 20, 2022
Saffron Maeve is a Toronto-based writer and critic who once had to be talked out of getting a Sy Ableman tattoo. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, MUBI Notebook, Screen Slate, and Girls on Tops, among other corners of the internet. You can unfortunately find her on Twitter.