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‘The birthplace of hostage negotiation’: inside a groundbreaking 1973 standoff | Documentary films

Films about hostage situations rarely play out like Hold Your Fire, where both the captives and captors don’t die.

Stefan Forbes’s riveting documentary revisits a real life 47-hour standoff in Brooklyn following a botched sporting goods store robbery; the kind that makes you wonder why they never made a movie about that before. In January 1973, four Black men led by Shu’aib Raheem were planning to steal guns from John and Al’s Sporting Goods in Bed-Stuy and were pitted into a loaded and intense confrontation with an overwhelmingly white police force that brought barricades, snipers and a tank.

There were also a dozen hostages in the store and enough ammunition to wage a war against an especially volatile police force that tragically lost an officer during the initial shootout. Given all those elements and what we usually read in headlines when it comes to how police handle Black suspects, Hold Your Fire’s conclusion feels even more miraculous. One NYPD captain calls that event “the birthplace of hostage negotiation”, because all parties ultimately chose a peaceful resolution.

That’s not how the movies like it, though. The movies often choose violence. Think not only Reagan-era gems like Die Hard but also its imitators like Under Siege, Passenger 57, The Rock and Air Force One, which all end with the hostage takers laid to waste thanks to cavalier archetypal heroes who don’t put much stock in negotiating.

“It connects to the culture of violence that we’ve all grown up with in America,” says the hip-hop pioneer Fab 5 Freddy, speaking to the Guardian on a Zoom call from his Brooklyn brownstone. Freddy, a friend to director Forbes and producer on Hold Your Fire, draws the parallel between Hollywood’s brute force fantasies and police mentality in general. “That was the mindset across the board coming from the old western. ‘Let’s go and shoot them up.’ Good guys, bad guys and all that.’”

“[Those movies] tend to tell a false story about heroism and manhood that is enormously destructive to American males,” says Forbes on a separate Zoom call from a friend’s apartment in New York. “We always value the macho soldier or the Navy Seal. Making this film, I wanted to valorize the 99lb Jewish intellectual with a big shelf of books.”

Forbes, speaking with a calming, mellow and thoughtful drawl, is describing the late Dr Harvey Schlossberg, the godfather of hostage negotiators who died just last year after filming interviews for Hold Your Fire. In January 1973, Schlossberg was a traffic cop armed with a PhD. He got the police commissioner’s ear during the showdown in Bed-Stuy and was allowed to quarterback the force, directing them to have patience, show empathy and wait until the hostage takers make a mistake. Schlossberg was feeling out the tactics that would form his strategy for de-escalation and crisis intervention therapy. He would go on to teach those strategies to the hostage negotiation units formed in order to avoid more fatal scenarios like Attica and the Dog Day Afternoon robbery. Though that training doesn’t usually trickle down to patrolling officers.

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“It was a shock to me to learn that in the violent, authoritarian paramilitary organization of the NYPD in the 1970s, there was a Jewish intellectual preaching radical empathy,” says Forbes. Throughout the film, Forbes contrasts Schlossberg’s approach and overall demeanor to a police force that for generations learned to dominate every interaction and reinforce “a man code” that sees negotiating as a “cop-out”.

The other prominent figure in Hold Your Fire is Raheem, who is commonly referred to as the leader among the armed robbers. He speaks on camera after having spent 35 years in prison for robbery, kidnapping and the murder of officer Stephen Gilroy, who was shot in the head during an early exchange of gunfire.

Raheem, who has since become an advocate for restorative justice, appears soft-spoken and guilt-ridden in Hold Your Fire, even as he and others remain unconvinced that he fired the shot that killed Gilroy. The film makes a convincing case that Gilroy could have been hit by friendly fire. However, Raheem takes responsibility for creating the circumstances that led to the officer’s death and leaving his hostages with life-long trauma. He doesn’t feign innocence, and Forbes’s film doesn’t fault him for it.

“So many times, people of color are only portrayed as deserving of justice if they hew to this narrative of Christ-like innocence and victimhood,” says Forbes. “I love Sh’uiab because he has a complicated life like all of us, and he’s no less deserving of justice, dialogue and fair treatment. I was excited to let him present himself as a flawed, complex, nuanced individual, which we don’t see enough of.”

Hold Your Fire comes hardwired with genre trappings, cut to the rhythms of a thriller. The director says he sees his film in a “cinematic conversation” with the movies he greatly admires, not the Die Hards but the gritty, realistic and morally complicated 70s police stories like Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Taking of Pelham 123 and The French Connection . A key scene in The French Connection, when Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle shakes down Black patrons at the Oasis bar, actually takes place just down the block from John and Al’s Sporting Goods.

“I’d stumbled across this super-violent, exciting story from the 70s,” says Forbes. “And I wondered if I could tell it in a 2020s approach, listening to a multiplicity of viewpoints. I found out that’s a lot harder than it looks. We pay lip service to pluralism in society. But when you actually try to tell a narrative from conflicting viewpoints, it’s incredibly hard to find common ground and make the story coherent.”

Photograph: IFC Films

The strength in Forbes film is how it embraces the conflict, pitting the perspectives of the cops, witnesses and prime suspects against each other, no matter how diametrically opposed their version of events may be. Sometimes the conflict is there in the individual voices. Police officers talk on-camera saying exactly what you’d expect. One says they’re not racist, they just like to be with their own. Another says some people need a “damn beating.” Those statements are delivered so matter-of-factly they left knots in my stomach.

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But then those same cops also surprise with their own criticisms against brute force policing. “Some of the most radical critiques of policing in this film were offered by conservative cops, saying the police act like a Gestapo throwing the constitution out the window,” says Forbes. “They do hold radically conflicting views like all of us do.”

His documentary also holds space for the trauma police endure and the pressure violent patriarchal ideas about masculinity puts on them. You can feel the cops grappling with that as they speak with Forbes, whose interview style suggests he holds Schlossberg’s ideas about deep and empathetic listening close to heart.

I also suspect the police officers appearing on-camera made themselves more vulnerable to Forbes because he’s white. “They probably opened up in ways that they wouldn’t have been sitting in front of me,” says Fab 5 Freddy, agreeing with the suggestion.

Freddy also agrees that Forbes is a white guy who gets it – he doesn’t see allyship as an opportunity to put a black square on Instagram, or making this film as an opportunity to speak on behalf of the black community but instead a challenge to make change within his own community. And in telling this story, Forbes leaned on his friend Freddy, among others, for guidance, particularly when it came to details about Brooklyn.

Freddy, a Brooklyn native, is a graffiti artist, film-maker and OG host of Yo! MTV Raps. He was among the first to represent the hip-hop community on-screen as the co-writer behind 1983’s Bronx tale, Wild Style. He’s been a cultural ambassador representing New York since the 80s, giving voice to communities often painted with broad brushes by the police. So he made himself available to correct the record when cops would give Forbes dramatic and inaccurate descriptions about the Bed-Stuy neighborhood where the hostage crisis unfolded, saying it was infested with rats and dirty needles, and likening the violence there to the killing fields. Actually, it was the strip where a young Fab 5 Freddy would buy sneakers. Freddy suggests those cops, who were not from the community, got their longitude and latitude crossed when describing Bed-Stuy.

Dan Nuxoll, Fab Five Freddy and Stefan Forbes
Dan Nuxoll, Fab Five Freddy and Stefan Forbes. Photograph: Arthur Holmes/Getty Images

Freddy recalls the South Bronx in the 70s, where several buildings had been burned to the ground by landlords scheming to collect insurance money. “It looked like cities in Europe after being bombed in the second world war or – unfortunately – how cities in Ukraine look after what has been happening with the Russians,” says Freddy. He describes these sites familiar to anyone who has seen the South Bronx rubble in Wild Style or Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s renowned music video for 1982’s The Message. That scene is what Melle Mel is describing when he raps “broken glass, everywhere”.

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“That’s literally how it looked in a lot of communities,” Freddy continues. “But Bed-Stuy didn’t really look like that. Bed-Stuy, which was at that time a solidly black, working/middle-class community, is the largest brownstone community. There were some rough spots in Bed-Stuy. There were a few abandoned buildings here and there. But overall, no way. It was a completely different thing.”

Freddy admits that he wasn’t all that familiar with the hostage situation that took place in the area. He was a teen in 73. News didn’t exactly travel like it does today. Though he imagines he had known what was going on at the time, he would have been among the crowds gathering around John and Al’s Sporting Goods, protesting against police action, serving as witnesses and advocating to spare everyone’s lives. But as film-making on Hold Your Fire was under way, Freddy discovered that he was a lot closer to the story than he initially realized.

Freddy had an Aunt Doris who died more than a decade ago. She was an aunt not by blood but because she was like a sister to his mom. “Doris would mention to me periodically that she had this cousin who was in prison,” says Freddy. “And every time he comes up for parole, there’s a big thing. There’s articles in the papers. All these police show up at his hearings from him. I never understood what the whole context of this case was.”

That cousin is Raheem.

Freddy’s eyes are lit up as he recalls how he found out about this relationship in the most circuitous way. During a recent family getaway in Barbados, Doris’s daughter informed Freddy that some film-maker named Stefan Forbes was making a film about her cousin de ella. Freddy immediately jumped on the phone with Forbes to tell him how this all came back around. That’s the sort of connective tissue bound to surface when a story like this comes home to its community.

Freddy has stayed in touch with Raheem since. “We did Thanksgiving here together. I’d show him pictures of his Aunt Doris, who was the main person throughout his 35-year sentence who would always write him consistently. And that means so much when you’re doing time to have that connection to the outside world.”

Moving forward, Freddy says he hopes to get another member of his community to see Hold Your Fire: New York City’s elder, Eric Adams. The former NYPD captain from Brooklyn is about Freddy’s age of him. He would have witnessed the police acting like an occupying force in the neighborhood before he joined the force.

Freddy says he voted for Adams, and now wants to make arrangements to screen the film for the mayor and police officers so they can consider how to engage Harvey Schlossberg’s tactics on a day-to-day basis. “These tactics of de-escalation, talking, holding your fire is what I’m so happy to be on a soapbox for.”

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