In January 1973, four African-American men entered a Brooklyn sporting goods store and attempted to steal guns and ammunition to use for self-defense. Police arrived and cornered them inside, along with eleven hostages. When some of the cops opened fire, the men fired back. No one knows who issued the fatal shot, but one officer was killed during the shootout. The NYPD responded by bringing in far more reinforcement than was actually needed. A 48-hour standoff ensued, one with life-and-death stakes, but also one that was loaded with implications for race relations in the city.
This is the story recounted in Stefan Forbes' spellbinding documentary Hold Your Fire. Two of the men who attempted that robbery are interviewed, as are several of the cops working that day. The key figure, though, is Harvey Schlossberg, a traffic cop who happened to have a PhD in psychology. When it was clear the robbers weren't going to surrender, he came in to negotiate, single-handedly changing the way law enforcement handles hostage situations in the process.
The film does an excellent job setting the stage. Supplementing the interviews with archival news footage and photographs, Hold Your Fire starts off by detailing how the scenario grew so tense. When it was learned that the robbers were four Black men, a rumor quickly spread that they were part of the Black Liberation Army, a group that had openly targeted police officers with violence. It wasn't true, but the NYPD acted as though it was. And after the officer was shot, they ramped up the response in front of the store. This had the effect of making the men inside scared. Because tensions between the African-American community and law enforcement were already sky high, they assumed they'd be killed if they surrendered, so they holed up instead. This created the standoff that neither side was willing to budge on.
The unlikely hero is Schlossberg, a man with the foresight to realize that the police department's typical response to a hostage situation was a show of force – something that was going to backfire wildly in this case. He appears on-camera to discuss some of the groundbreaking methods he devised. It's stuff that seems common-sense now, but was deemed radical at the time. Imagine trying to talk to hostage takers rather than going in guns blazing!
The biggest strength of Hold Your Fire is how it illustrates what a pivotal event this situation was. Through careful storytelling, we come to recognize how much was at stake, as well as how badly things could have gone. Those interviews go a long way toward painting a complete picture. One of the men, Shu'aib Raheem, has made a complete turnaround in his life. During his time onscreen, we can visibly see the guilt and remorse he has for making those hostages feel afraid. He even breaks down at one point upon being told by the filmmakers about the effect being a hostage had on one woman later on.
Hold Your Fire goes into sufficient detail to play like a well-crafted Hollywood thriller. If you don't already know what happened, you're likely to be on the edge of your seat. It's rare to get a documentary that looks at a single issue from all sides, picking it apart and allowing for greater understanding of the issue at its core. By the end, you can see how hostage negotiations have changed policing, and probably saved a lot of lives in the process.
out of four
Hold Your Fire is unrated, but contains mature thematic content and some language. The running time is 1 hour and 35 minutes.