The documentary “Riotsville, USA” it is, ostensibly, a film about America in the late 1960s, at a time when the nightly news of civil unrest caused citizens and politicians to demand the restoration of law and order, by any means necessary. . Through archival film and television clips, mostly presented without commentary or context, director Sierra Pettengill reviews two of the most high-profile efforts at the time to tackle the problem. One was social engineering; the other brute force.
This establishes what “Riotsville, USA” is really about: a nearly forgotten moment more than 50 years ago, when the country could have embraced some radical changes, but didn’t.
Pettengill weaves together three main threads. The film’s title is based on a series of exercises conducted by the US military and law enforcement, which involved building fake city blocks and simulating violent protests to test new strategies to quell public unrest. The images of these demonstrations, long buried in a government archive, are the main selling point of “Riotsville, USA.” The images are creepy and darkly funny; and they tell their own story about how dismissive the authorities of the time could be towards the hippies and civil rights activists they imitated in their training games.
Pettengill also draws heavily on the public television panel shows of the time, which hosted robust and still relevant discussions of bigotry and surveillance. Those conversations informed President Johnson’s bipartisan Kerner Commission, which produced a 1968 report, covered extensively in this documentary, stating that the best way to reduce crime and violence would be to improve public education, introduce new work and recognize the effects of systemic racism. .
The third thread joins the other two. Pettengill looks up TV news about the 1968 Republican National Convention in Miami, which is not as talked about today as the Democrats’ more turbulent convention in Chicago a few weeks later. The nomination and eventual election of Richard Nixon would finally close the book on the Kerner Commission’s recommendations, plus the report’s suggestion that cities increase their police budgets.
There is a clear point of view for “Riotsville, USA,” which is likely to appeal more to the “defund the police” crowd than to people with “Blue Lives Matter” stickers on their cars. Still, by letting the archival footage carry most of the weight, Pettengill creates a kind of instructive time-travel experience for viewers of all political persuasions, transporting them back to a past eerily similar to our present.
From the unflinching objectivity of news anchors to the impassioned statements of protesters in the streets, “Riotsville, USA.” It recreates both the mood of the time and the frustratingly narrow mainstream perspective that everyone was so angry about. In the end, this turns into a movie about how and why we seem to keep having the same arguments, generation after generation.
Execution time: 1 hour, 31 minutes
Playing: Starts September 23rd, Laemmle Glendale