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Sundance 2022: Riotsville, U.S.A.

January 23, 2022


Indirectly, “Riotsville, U.S.A.” explains quite a bit about our current insanity and everyone who has been feeling today (today defined as: March 2020 to present) should watch this documentary from director Sierra Pettengill. Those are the initial thoughts I had at the end of viewing a film that is composed of archival U.S. military footage and news coverage from the late 1960s. As the saying goes, “history repeats itself”, which is something we’re reminded of throughout the majority of the film. We’re shown how, in response to the Civil Rights uprisings that were occurring in cities across the nation, the military held riot training on bases wherein soldiers dressed as long-haired hippie protestors and looters and tasked with cutting loose on the constructed storefronts and turning over vehicles in pop-up towns (called Riotsville), while other soldiers were armed with weapons and charged with maintaining control of the situation. For a viewer like me, who had no idea such a thing existed, this is all sadly unsurprising considering the way we’ve seen both the military and militarized police respond react to riots in places like Ferguson, Missouri, and the national outcry in the wake of the murder of George Floyd.

As the film begins, it’s unclear what we’re watching as footage reveals what seems like a miniature town. Are those figures with rifles positioned on rooftops toys? No, they’re actual people and as the camera from the footage pans and expands, we see risers filled with an audience. What is going on here? Through texts displaced on screen we learn what exactly transpired back then, as composer Jace Clayton’s unique electronic aural accompaniment accents our curiosity and eventually our developing uneasiness. It’s all part of an entrancing opening that is just the beginning of an immersion into the past, which winds up holding a mirror to our present.

Pettengill serves as both director and archival researcher, but it’s clear she has a tremendous crew supporting her vision here. New York critic and writer (New Yorker and Village Voice) Tobi Haslett provides astute commentary throughout, but from a viewer’s point of view, the director’s greatest asset comes from editor Nels Bangerter (who’s worked closely with documentarian Kirsten Johnson), since all this footage has to be not only organized and shaped in a narrative fashion, but there’s also a desire to zoom in and out in order to slow down and examine what has been found. This approach enhances the viewing experience by pulling us in and placing this information on our laps, making it inevitable for us to address it. What exactly is the audience learning here about our present as we gaze at the past? You could answer that question easily, but Pettengill wants us to think about.

At no point do we catch up with talking heads of today in “Riotsville, U.S.A.”, reflecting on what transpired…we stay in the past. Pettengill could’ve tracked down those who were participated or organized these riot response simulations, but keeping us in the right year and never syncing to the present, is the right decision. Because the documentary remains in the late 60s/early 70s, we’re forced to consider what there is about this period in our history to take in, to consider, and offer – while possibly by looking at how government, police, military, media, and sponsors converged back then. When we arrive at how things were back then, we can see how minorities (feeling unrecognized and discarded) are just as disenfranchised with the government now as they were back then. The film’s narrator, Charlene Modeste) can be heard saying, “The people took revenge on the cities that confined them,” which is but one take on the reasoning for such actions by a disaffected of society.

In response to such civil unrest, President Johnson got in front of the camera, broadcasting to a wounded and clueless nation and that is included here. News footage is shown of LBJ speaking in 1967, having just created the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorder in response to what would be called the Long, Hot Summer of 1967, due to roughly sixteen race riots that occurred in June and July. He assigns Illinois governor Otto Kerner to oversee a committee which becomes known as the Kerner Commission, created in response to such escalating “disturbances” by those considered “outside agitators” in cities nationwide. One year later, they published a report called The Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders or Kerner Report, becoming an instant bestseller with over two million Americans purchasing copies of the 426-page document (a reminder that this is before the internet and, at one time, people read). The report’s findings were both surprising and maddening. They claimed that white racism was mainly to blame for urban violence and are directly linked to a black uprising. The report suggested that providing new jobs and constructing new homes for blacks, and other minorities that have less economic opportunity, would be one answer. The report criticized federal and state governments for failed housing, education and social-service policies, as well as aiming some of its sharpest criticism at the media, stating, “The press has too long basked in a white world looking out of it, if at all, with white men’s eyes and white perspective.” All that considered, the recommended government course of action was to hire more diverse and sensitive police forces and, most notably, to invest billions aimed at breaking up residential segregation. Their report may have emptied shelves fast, but it was essentially filled with broad statements and made ideas of justice and equality look like an distant (and out-of-touch) fantasy and due to how the President handled Vietman there was no confidence that he could see such change through. The only real result of the report, a government implementation to increase funding for federal police.

The trained responses learned in the Riotsville camps would be implemented in any gatherings that were thought to inspire riots. The maneuvers were expected to be implemented at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, but the documentary focuses more on the Republican National Convention that occurred months earlier in Miami, which saw police use repurposed insect repellant trucks to spray tear gas in an effort to control crowds of protesters in Black neighborhoods. Pettengill follows that coverage with a commercial from Gulf Oil, advertising their bug spray product with the slogan, “Swat It. Hit it. Get Mad. Or, kill it!”, and the correlation with how the government is spraying low-income, overlooked minority areas is obvious. Spray away the dissenters and they’ll go away.

With the report becoming as popular a discussion as subjects inside it, there became a more visible response. On television, there were roundtable discussions with specialists and authority figures, some of which were broadcast on Public Broadcast Laboratory (a precursor to Public Broadcasting Service), discussing politics and society. These discussions offer  informative and insightful perspectives, but no one can arrive on any real answers. Later on, Pettengill humorously offers a look at another response, where we see white suburban grandmothers and housewives, lining up to buy guns and learn how to use them after being worked into a frenzy by racist politicians. They smirk and grin, saying to the camera they don’t want to kill anyone, but they will if they have to. This is immediately followed by footage of a Black woman pointing out that if a black politician told black people to go out and arm themselves for protection there would be an enormous public outcry. The cycle of racism is the same as it ever was: based on fear, power, and greed.

As “Riotsville, U.S.A” plays out, it reminds us that this is the society America built. This was it then and this is it now. This is where attempts at constructive, helpful discourse between opposing sides are ignored for a set of actions that implement violence as a form of peace. It’s an absurd notion that is sadly quite familiar. That being said, this is a documentary that has to be seen, to serve as a reminder that what so many are feeling and experiencing today comes from our past…and to this day, we wonder and ask: what can be done?



RATING: ***1/2

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