Putting it on screen

Years ago, former Detroiter Bonnie Garvin became intrigued with the case of the state of New York vs. Bernard Stroble. The late Ernie Goodman, an icon among Detroit progressives, successfully defended inmate Stroble (aka Shango) on charges of murder and kidnapping stemming from the 1971 uprising of inmates at Attica prison. It was a “David and Goliath” struggle, says Garvin, and a David-style victory effectively turned the tables on the state, making way for the surviving inmates and their attorneys to win $12 million in damages for the brutality of the state’s attack on the prison. Garvin’s interest led her to write and produce The Killing Yard. She spoke recently with Metro Times.

Metro Times: People are often accused in situations like this of playing fast and free with historical facts in order to make an interesting scenario. Is this all rooted in facts, or did you let your imagination go as well?
Bonnie Garvin:
The things I fictionalized were mainly things about relationships or sort of personal situations where you kind of had to fill in the blanks. This is a drama; it isn’t a documentary. Everything that went on in the courtroom — all the things that related to what, in fact, happened legally and so forth — were absolutely true to the facts and were a result of having spent countless hours reading thousands of pages of transcripts. I’ve taken dramatic license with certain personal things that happened. For example, the investigator who worked with Ernie on Shango’s case was a young woman who now lives in Detroit named Linda Borus. Linda Borus and Shango fell in love and ultimately had a child together some years later. But I wasn’t really in the room when they had an exchange, so I had to imagine what might have gone on.

Metro Times: How much of this is prison drama and how much of it is courtroom drama?
Certainly it’s a courtroom drama, although I suppose if you added up all the time you spent in the courtroom, you’re probably there maybe 15 to 20 minutes because it also takes place in flashbacks: We re-create the uprising. There’s amazing footage. People who have seen the actual documentary footage out of Attica thought that this was actually more powerful and realistic. It’s so believable and so harrowing. The way it’s layered in the story helps you see it from the inmates’ point of view.

Metro Times: You knew Ernie Goodman personally. What was he like?
The only really painful part in all this is that he’s not around to see it. He was truly a remarkable human being, a man of enormous humanity who, when I first came to him and said I wanted to write about him and this case, he laughed. He just thought it was so absurd that anyone would want to spend time writing about him. The only way he was even interested in it was because it had something to say — because it was about Attica.

Metro Times: Was there an attempt to get Alan Alda to act like Goodman?
What Alan captures for me about Ernie is this, as I said earlier, this enormous humanity that just comes from a person who’s so compassionate and kind and true of heart, and who really puts the greater good ahead of himself. But to me, I don’t think people who knew Ernie would look and think, “God, he really reminds of Ernie.”

Metro Times:How did Morris Chestnut, who is in Boyz N the Hood, relate to the film?
He had to become Shango and he had to know what Shango knew, and Shango was a really well-read, political guy. Morris had to throw himself into research. And it was really interesting because I found these tapes of Malcolm X delivering his own speeches and gave them to Morris as a gift, and that was the first time he’d ever actually heard Malcolm X speak. The one thing about Shango was he had — you could really feel it even when you look at photographs — that rage in the pit of his stomach. Through the evolution of all that, you really saw Morris change and become that character.

Peter Werbe is the host of "Night Call," Sunday at 11 p.m. on 101.1 FM, WRIF. Send comments to [email protected]
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