Riotsville, USA – Movie Review – Austin Chronicle

This documentary from director Sierra Pettengill that tells the story of two actual faux towns built on a couple of Army bases in Virginia and Georgia by the United States government back in the 1960s. They built these two fake towns – one-sided facades facing rows of bleachers – for police from around the country to come and learn new tactical measures to quell the violent protests many American cities were dealing with at the time. Using soldiers from the two Army bases as pretend protesters, the government showed the various military and police dignitaries in attendance just how to put down civil disorder with all types of military weaponry.
Pettengill’s documentary is composed solely of archival footage from the 1960s, culled from the government’s own films shot at both Riotsville locations and from the major network news outlets. The film takes the viewer through the tumultuous decade where people dared to speak out and to speak up about the oppression they felt at the hands of the government. The government’s own reporting told everyone what was already apparent: that the United States was a racist country. Flash forward 50 years, and well, nothing much has changed.
Riotsville, USA puts a focus on the militarization of police forces and, again, nothing has changed. Back then they trotted out vehicles like a mini-tank replete with ear-piercing sounds and a pipe that blows out smoke and tear gas. The amount of tear gas used in Riotsville is second only to the amount of tear gas blasted at the Black community in Liberty City, the Florida location of the GOP National Convention in 1968.
Look, this movie is going to make you angry. It made me angry. Direct from Riotsville 1967 to your local small-town police force in 2022 that’s equipped with a tank they will never need nor use, police forces around the country spend billions on equipment meant for battlefields. Charlene Modeste’s matter-of-fact narration takes you along the journey of Riotsville, USA. And a journey it is. From soldiers’ make-believe protesting in a fake town to real-life police brutalization of Black people around the country, then and now. Same as it ever was.
In a film with a lot of striking juxtapositions, there’s an especially moving one that begins with audio of a portion of Sen. Robert Byrd’s speech on the floor of the Senate, in which Byrd calls out Martin Luther King Jr. as a coward who starts a riot and then flees the scene to let others pay the price. Then a graphic comes up informing the viewer that King was assassinated six days later. The film then cuts immediately to a performance on Public Broadcast Laboratory of Jimmy Collier and the Reverend Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick singing “Burn, Baby, Burn.” It’s an incredible song written by Collier after the Watts riots in 1965. After the performance, another graphic tells us that PBL was removed from the air when The Ford Foundation pulled its funding a year later. Riotsville, USA is a definitely worth your time and attention.

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Riotsville, USA, Sierra Pettengill
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