By Ezra Haber Glenn
At a time when the nation is taking stock of the failures of our history of urban policing and looking for some new approaches, the lessons of Hold Your Fire are needed more urgently than ever.
On a cold January day in 1973, what started as a run-of-the-mill New York robbery quickly escalated into what would become the city’s longest-running hostage situation. The gripping story of how this drama unfolded over the next 47 hours from bad to worse, and then — surprisingly, miraculously, fortunately took a turn towards a largely peaceful resolution — is masterfully recounted in Hold Your Fire, an empathic and insightful new documentary directed by Stefan Forbes.
The facts of the case are not in dispute: led by the 23-year old Shu’aib Raheem, four young African-American men seeking guns for self defense hatched a plan to rob Al’s Sporting Goods in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. (Exactly why they needed the weapons and who they wanted to defend themselves from is a key element of the story, thoughtfully explored in Act II of the film, so I won’t spoil it here.) Unfortunately for them — as well as for Jerry Riccio, who was running the store, and the handful of customers shopping there at the time — dozens of New York’s finest quickly surrounded the block, armed to the teeth and itching for action. An officer was shot in the ensuing firefight (as was one of Raheem’s team). In a flash the robbery turned into a standoff and then a grinding siege, complete with an military-grade urban assault tank — with Riccio and the others as unwitting hostages.
For the next two days the situation played out in real-time with all the tension and drama of the best Hollywood thrillers — but of course, this story actually happened: these are people, not actors. (Interestingly, just a few months earlier, a similar robbery-gone-wrong resulted in a 17-hour hostage negotiation, which captivated the city and would later form the basis for the 1975 Oscar-nominated film starring Al Pacino, Dog Day Afternoon. One can perhaps imagine an alternate history where director Sidney Lumet have made his film about the 1973 robbery instead, perhaps starring Melvin Van Peebles as the charismatic hostage-taker — although it’s hard to know whether mainstream audiences would have been as sympathetic towards a Black hostage-taking protagonist at the time…)
In addition to the impressive visual storytelling, a sizzling soundtrack, and a thoughtful, efficient narrative, the film is incredibly empathetic, recognizing — and at times celebrating — the humanity it finds. In Forbes’s film, the story is all about the characters — or rather, the people — be they cops or criminals, heroes, hotheads, or hostages (or, as it often turns out, a mix of all three…). Thus, after setting the scene through archival footage and photos, the camera comes in close and focuses on the key players, helping us actually see — and ideally understand — this complex situation through each of their eyes in turn.
Through interviews, an older, wiser Raheem reflects back on those days and speaks eloquently about the confusion, the chaos, and the constant and suffocating fear of being trapped at the epicenter of a situation spiraling out of control. A number of the cops, now veterans, recount their memories from those days, the conversations channeling the raw emotion of the moment while also benefiting from the added perspective that comes with passage of time. The archival footage remembers Benjamin Ward, a rising star in the department who would later go on to become the city’s first Black Police Commissioner, as he straddles these two worlds and attempts to diffuse the situation. Through these layers of viewpoints and situations, we come to feel the tension — wincing at each misstep and missed communication — even more poignantly.
And then, at the heart of it all, there’s Harvey Schlossberg, an NYPD cop with a PhD in psychology, who serves as the unlikely star of the show. Preaching a strategy of patience and listening – what he described as “active waiting” — he argued for a new approach to diffusing tense situations, pioneering what would become the modern approach to hostage negotiations.
Elegantly, Forbes explores these events with slow care and thoughtful attention, not rushing, allowing us to see and reflect and really feel the pathos and the humanity in each interaction: the connections, moments of seeming progress, the slip-ups and attempted recoveries. The film is balanced, but honest; it doesn’t excuse racism — or theft, hostage-taking, or murder — but it seeks to move the discussion forward, rather than getting stuck in the same old arguments leading to the same old fights. In many ways, Hold Your Fire brings to documentary filmmaking the exact approach that Schlossberg advocated for policing: don’t get distracted by the noise and the action, just focus on listening and wait for those moments of shared understanding, build on them, and in so doing you’ll create opportunities for deeper connection. This is the work: it’s a lot harder than it looks, but give it time. It can lead to surprisingly powerful and lasting results.
In addition to Forbes’s reflective and compassionate approach, the production benefited from an advisory board that included Dr. Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, DEI consultants from Third Settlements, and a number of experts in criminal justice, as well as co-producer and hip-hop pioneer Fab 5 Freddy, who has been working at the intersection of art, film, and social justice for decades.
At a time when the nation is taking stock of the failures of our history of urban policing and looking for some new approaches, the lessons of Hold Your Fire are needed more urgently than ever. For cops and activists alone — working to build trust in diverse communities in particular, or in settings recovering from the pain and trauma of these racist policies — the film suggests a positive, yet realistic, model to emulate in public engagement, prioritizing the building of relationships over the rush for immediate actions. It also holds out hope: there are times in the past when we’ve heeded the better angels of our nature, and some of those angels — Forbes, Freddy, and even some of the flawed heroes of the films — are still around.
Hold Your Fire is showing around the country in festivals and special screenings, and can be found on most major streaming platforms, including Apple TV, Amazon, GooglePlay, Vudu, YouTube, and more. Proceeds from the film will help fund two special nonprofit organizations: The Osborne Association heals trauma and builds opportunity for families affected by crime and incarceration; and POPPA, an NYPD mental health support network.
Ezra Haber Glenn is a Lecturer in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies & Planning, where he teaches a special subject on “The City in Film.” His essays, criticism, and reviews have been published in The Arts Fuse, CityLab, the Journal of the American Planning Association, Bright Lights Film Journal, WBUR’s The ARTery, Experience Magazine, the New York Observer, and Next City. He is the regular film reviewer for Planning magazine, and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. Follow him on https://www.urbanfilm.org and https://twitter.com/UrbanFilmOrg.