'Riotsville, U.S.A.' Review: Provocative, Half-Cooked Documentary Lacks Direction and Context [Sundance]

Seemingly a rejection of monocausal history in that it twists the firehose nozzle all the way open to spray from any and every direction, “Riotsville, U.S.A.” is no less problematic from where it sits on the other side of that theoretical chasm. Grabbing at anything that conforms to the half-cooked epiphanies the documentary has from moment to moment, the path of the film’s discussion weaves through about a dozen provocative ideas without betraying much of an attempt to critically analyze any one of them. Somewhat ironically, like the social unrest that underpins much of the footage featured in “Riotsville, U.S.A.,” the documentary is well-intentioned yet hampered by a lack of direction, clearly defined goals, and the support of a larger, established apparatus to lend it legitimacy.

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Using a mix of Army and police training footage, along with late-1960s American television news reports and opinion segments, director Sierra Pettengill bravely abandons many of the trappings of modern documentaries. Anchored by a single narrator (Charlene Modeste) and free of any talking head contributors or slick animation sequences, the documentary opens with some history of the period, briefly mentioning civil unrest in places like Watts and Harlem and how the U.S. military began training for an increased presence in the inner cities. A big chunk of the footage Pettengill deploys centers around the construction of fake towns, dubbed “Riotsville,” that the Army and military police used to perform riot control exercises, and those scenes are indeed chilling.

It’s an interesting piece of history that lends itself easily to assumptions about not just the uptick in violence at protests and demonstrations during the late ’60s but also the increasing militarization of local law enforcement agencies. Vietnam is brought up sporadically, yet its absence in much of the conversation hints at a larger problem with the documentary – mainly that it’s biting off more than it can chew. Pettengill seems to be drawing a straight line from racial unrest in the ’60s to increased police militarization to the defeat of cultural revolution at the hands of a complicit sociopolitical apparatus.

While the film pulls from ideas related to political demonstrations, class inequality, racial injustice, legalized police brutality, and unhealed wounds from the Civil War, none of it is examined with the critical lens necessary to draw out any meaningful conclusions. By devoting a fair amount of time to the 1967 Kerner Commission, Pettengill very correctly identifies the fact that the causes of social unrest within what was then identified as “ghettos” were well known even then. Further, it was understood that these issues disproportionately impacted communities of color and were rooted in a lack of education, housing, healthcare, and employment resources. Naturally, nothing was done to broadly address these issues, and the only increase in funding that resulted from these recommendations went to the police.

None of this is particularly surprising, and it leads one to the inescapable question: What is “Riotsville, U.S.A.” trying to say? If it’s to pull the curtain back on the increased militarization of domestic law enforcement agencies, that’s not exactly a shocker. Anyone who has tuned into the news over the last couple of decades has probably noticed that Barney Fife’s single pocket bullet has been replaced with APCs and M203 single-shot 40mm under-barrel gazpacho makers. The path from the 1968 Democratic National Convention to Ferguson isn’t a straight one, however, and needs a hell of a lot more context than a few news segments and forgotten footage of the U.S. military cosplaying as brown shirts.

Later in “Riotsville, U.S.A.” Pettengill makes a compelling case that a broader shift in national opinion took place with Nixon’s election in the wake of his law-and-order campaign platform. Yet even a cursory, surface-level understanding of American history and politics points towards a far more complex mélange of factors that came into play during that period, one that demands an understanding of the American military’s presence in Vietnam, the economy, rising political activism (including women’s and LGBTQIA+ rights), and of course racial unrest.

The documentary’s dearth of focus and contextualization via historians, political figures from the period, or even just participants from the events depicted leave the audience with only sporadic narration and the wandering focus of Pettingill to guide them. And it just isn’t enough: not by a long shot. There is a rich, nuanced history to be unpacked via a discussion of the increased militarization of local police departments following the riots of the mid-’60s (particularly 1967), and how that ties into our understanding of social trends related to the early 20th century’s “Great Migration.”

“Riotsville, U.S.A.” teases at this connection when it touches on the Confederate names of U.S. military bases, yet goes no further with the idea. It’s a disappointing failing of the documentary, which repeatedly intrigues only to wax philosophical and pontificate rather than contextualize and educate. Again, there’s not a lot of focus or direction (much like its subject matter) – and if this is the point, it’s a depressing and not especially novel one.  [D]

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