Taking place only months after the bank robbery/hostage situation that inspired Dog Day Afternoon, the January 1973 incident at John and Al’s Sporting Goods in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, went on far longer – lasting nearly four days – and resulted in the death of a cop. It is also the event credited with ushering in the modern age of hostage negotiation. And it is has been pretty much lost to history – until now with coverage in Stefan Forbes’ Hold Your Fire, a riveting documentary on the subject.
Forbes, who previously made the acclaimed 2008 doc Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story about the notorious GOP hatchet man applies that same passion and attention to detail to his latest investigation. It should have been a quick in and out for Shu’aib Raheem and his three partners, working-class friends and Sunni Muslims who were not after money but guns with which to defend their families from rival Black Muslims they were convinced were out to murder them. But a passerby witnessed the robbery through a window and alerted police. The NYPD responded with full force; a small army poised to prevent flight. A vicious gun battle ensued. Raheem and his cohorts retreated inside, holding as hostages store manager Jerry Ciccio, gun salesman Cleve Snyder, and the store’s customers, including a pregnant woman and a teenage girl.
Filling the frame with news footage and photography, analog images almost tactile in the way they capture the grit of 1970s New York, Forbes follows the incident from beginning to end with pertinent digressions into such angles as why the robbery happened in the first place and how Deputy Police Commissioner Benjamin Ward, New York City’s first Black deputy commissioner who would become its first Black police commissioner a decade later, called upon Harvey Schlossberg, a traffic cop with a PhD in psychology, to help defuse a volatile situation.
In addition to the copious archival materials, Forbes gathers interviews with robbers, cops, and hostages, as many people as he could gather still living nearly 50 years after the incident with memories to share. These include Raheem, fellow robber Dawud Rahman, Ciccio, and Schlossberg. Among the other police Forbes interviews, many were deeply suspicious of his de-escalation methods, so at odds with their more aggressive training, only to witness how effective they could be.
Hold Your Fire reclaims a fascinating period of lost history and in its final minutes, Forbes connects the dots forward to our present circumstance. Schlossberg’s methods have been adopted by organizations throughout the world and are credited for saving thousands of lives. But in the US, Schlossberg’s contributions to policing have been largely ignored and might still makes right. Relations between cops and the public (not just criminals, but also the very people they are supposed to protect and serve) continue to fray. We’ve seen the ugly results. Hold Your Fire argues that there is a better way.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This review by originally published on AWFJ.org in September 2021 when Hold Your Fire premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.