‘Hold Your Fire’: Stefan Forbes’ Riveting Hostage Negotiation Documentary Moves With the Force of a Thriller

There are certain events that in hindsight encapsulated a lot more than what was obvious at the time. In Stefan Forbes’ documentary, “Hold Your Fire,” a New York City heist and ensuing police standoff from 1973 turns into a relevant commentary on themes we’re discussing more intensely now. The Black American experience with law enforcement, our national obsession with guns, and the fine art of negotiation all crash together with a truly cinematic energy. It is nonfiction shaped into one of the year’s best thrillers. “I’m a huge fan of ‘70s thrillers like ‘The French Connection,’ ‘Dog Day Afternoon,’ ‘Serpico,’ just the gritty, cultural conflict and the sense of hard-hitting drama,” Forbes tells Entertainment Voice. “Making this was like discovering some lost New York City movie from the ‘70s. We felt it was super exciting to find this thriller no one knew about but that felt relevant to all the cultural conflict that we’re in today.”

The story told in “Hold Your Fire” is set in a New York influenced by all the convulsions of an era. The Attica prison uprising still lingers in the air. To be Black American is to be influenced by the emerging Black Power movement, questions of self-defense and the ongoing protests against the war in Vietnam. If there is a “main character” it is Shu’aib Raheem, who converted to Sunni Islam. Raheem found himself in a religious standoff due to his branch of Islam being frowned upon by the militant Nation of Islam, the messianic Black nationalist movement Malcolm X had broken away from. When the police offered no protection to Raheem and his family after death threats and even break-ins took place, which he is convinced were by the NOI, he decides to take action. Raheem, along with fellow Sunni Muslims Dawud A. Rahman, Yusef Abdallah Almussadig, and Salih Ali Abdullah, make their way to Al’s Sporting Goods store in Williamsburg, Brooklyn on January 19, 1973 and try to forcibly procure some guns. Thus a standoff begins involving hostages, including store clerk Jerry Riccio and the NYPD, who are already infamous for their tactics. A traffic cop named Harvey Schlossberg gets involved. He has a PHD in Psychology and believes there might be a nonviolent method to resolving the crisis.

“This event is so 1970s but it’s relevant to what we face today,” says Forbes. “Luckily I had the approval of the chief of police which got me past the ‘thin blue line’ of silence into an interesting zone of cops opening up of the trauma they carry, their complex relationship to violence. It was also incredibly hard to track down Shu’aib Raheem, who I thought was dead. For obvious reasons he’s not an easy guy to get in touch with. But we connected on a deep level. He had a story that had gone untold for 50 years.” What does indeed make “Hold Your Fire” different from the average “true crime” procedural is how it branches out into different angles concerning American history. Various retired officers from the era admit the NYPD operated almost as a paramilitary force in Black neighborhoods, which is a direct link to the origins of law enforcement in this country in the old slave patrols. The U.S., like all of the Americas, began as a colonial, slave-owning enterprise, and so armed security was always shaped to keep populations in line. Someone like Raheem felt they had no other option than to get guns by force in a society that fears Black Americans defending themselves. He had already tried to reach out to the cops when the NOI threatened his family, and the veterans on camera admit they probably dismissed it as just more Black on Black trouble. One interview subject who is a former cop, nonchalant shrugs that violence is simply part of American history.

“A lot of the subjects actually welcomed the chance to unburden themselves of what this violent event meant to them,” says Forbes. “From the cops to the hostages, few of them received any empathy or aid following the event. The act of really being heard is profoundly reassuring to people. I don’t think we have enough of that in American society. It’s one of the main drivers of violence. People feel like they need to fall into extreme rhetoric just to be heard on twitter.” It is fascinating how everyone not only talk to Forbes, but with such blunt honesty. One of the officers doesn’t bother to hide his lingering, racist attitudes, proclaiming that “racist” is just another word used to smear people who “want to be with their own kind.” These same officers admit they first viewed Schlossberg as some sort of wimp who went against the popular ethos promoted by movies like “Dirty Harry.” They also confess his techniques did eventually work to avoid a major bloodbath. “Dr. Schlossberg’s theories are crucial for how we can repair the bonds of society that are tearing in an alarming way,” adds Forbes. Raheem, who is still in prison, gives off an air of calm and reflection, like a man at peace with himself and what happened. Some of the surviving hostages are still shaken by the memories while store worker Riccio not only remembers every detail, but expresses empathy for Raheem and his comrades. 

Where “Hold Your Fire” then reaches cinematic heights is in its construction. Forbes, an experienced cinematographer and technician, edits grainy news and stock footage of the standoff with exhilarating force that conveys jump cuts, intercuts and the feverish rush of a classic thriller. The talking heads portions give us just enough information and insights while the whole documentary aesthetically keeps us gripped. “It was incredibly difficult in the editing room to assemble footage from all these different cameras and sources and maintain that urgent anxiety of a thriller,” says Forbes. “Thrillers are a very technically demanding form of movie, probably the most technically demanding because you need to keep the anxiety going. The shot-to-shot relations have to keep tension going up and down while maintaining harmony with the music. We rewrote the music score ten times with composer Jonathan Sanford. Sometimes he improvised live to film. We discussed the mood and where it was all going. It was an incredibly challenging edit to structure the ups and downs of a 47-hour siege.”

Once the smoke cleared and the standoff ended, an enduring legacy of the event would be the development of professional hostage negotiation techniques for law enforcement. That was at least one sign of progress, but a fine point of subtext in “Hold Your Fire” is that this story plays so urgently now because the wider issue of how law enforcement operates in relation to the Black community and all communities of color in America remains far from resolved. “When we seek to dominate others we just intensify conflict,” says Forbes. “We need to let people know that we hear each other, that we know where they are. We need to show empathy. You can side step conflicts and get agreement so much more easily. There’s a military dictum, ‘consent of the governed is the ultimate force multiplier.’ This stuff is kind of a no-brainer. I see that as a parent. But so often we’re taught that to be a man in America is to dominate a situation, never show weakness or admit that we’re wrong or show vulnerability. We have to stop and think about that.”

Hold Your Fire” releases May 20 in select theaters.