Riotsville is a peculiar place — a town meant to look like nowhere and everywhere at once. One-story buildings painted with loud reds, yellows and blues line the main street. The roads are virtually empty save a few individuals. Look closely and you can make out the shape of a person, armed and uniformed, perched atop one of the structures. Riotsville is not a real place. It is an invented town, a fictional locale constructed by the U.S. military.
Why does a place like this exist? It’s a question that Sierra Pettengill’s riveting documentary Riotsville, USA anticipates and answers with solemnity, conviction and precision. The impressive essay film, composed entirely of archival material from the late 1960s and footage created by the military, is a sobering look at a distressing reality. The militarization of the American police force, which every few years becomes the topic of mainstream news coverage, has been a steady work in progress, initiated decades ago.
Urgent and clear-eyed.
Riotsville begins with a tour of these military-constructed locales. The well-preserved footage shows supermarket advertisements, a city hall, a main street with shops, a person riding a motor scooter toward the edge of the frame and another, barely distinguishable, atop a building aiming his gun at an unknown target. The eerie tour is made more sinister and uncanny by Jace Clayton’s spare score.
The story of these model towns begins in the 1960s when, according to a poetic script penned by the writer Tobi Haslett and narrated by the actress Charlene Modeste, Americans in a hundred cities took to the streets in protest of racist and inhumane conditions. “Nothing that big or bright or sudden had ever happened and in so many American cities,” the narrator says. “Nothing so fierce or hard to grasp. The riots blew the roof off daily life.” The effect of this mass mobilization galvanized the people and scared those in charge. From that fear emerged a backlash and a steady stream of funds to police departments around the country.
Pettengill, whose last film, The Reagan Show, used archival footage to examine Ronald Reagan’s presidency, is skilled at building stories through the archive. That gift is on full display in Riotsville, which weaves together broadcast programs, archival images and occasional on-screen text to contextualize why and how the U.S. military set up these “towns” around the country. These visuals also serve as an uncanny parallel to present-day United States; astute viewers will connect the dots between then and now, and recognize the ways in which conversations around racism in the U.S. have been overcomplicated and manipulated to further militarize city police forces.
After the riots came a committee. In 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson created the Kerner Commission and tasked the 11-member group, composed of political moderates, to investigate what prompted the nationwide demonstrations. The results were published a year later and sold for $1.25 — evidence that the state is never beyond selling you anything, including confirmation of your own instincts and experience. The commission’s report painted “a pointillist picture of social collapse,” Riotsville notes, and urged the government to take immediate action. They offered solutions: One would require the United States government to spend money on social programs; the other — more of an aside, really — advised them to fund methods that would “control” future demonstrations. You can guess which option was implemented.
The early part of Riotsville establishes this information in a methodical but engaging way. The archival footage, coupled with the screenplay, clearly articulates the choices presented to the U.S. government and the course of action they chose instead. It is a damning portrait of the state, which simply refused to spend the money needed to tackle the root of the problem.
It is also a rebuttal to those who insist on the impracticality of making the U.S. more equitable. After all, the government funneled money into building model towns where police officers could train. It’s there that they learned the aggressive and dangerous tactics regularly deployed against future generations of protesters.
Pettengill, with the help of editor Nels Bangerter, spends the rest of the documentary using the archives to tell two interconnected stories: one of the Riotsville trainings and the other of America’s willful ignorance of how it treats Black people. Riotsville ends on an echo, a scenario that mirrors our present, and a reminder that the past is never as distant as we are led to believe.
All elements of this arresting documentary work together to push an urgent thesis: What we are attuned to hearing, to seeing and to thinking about the U.S. and what the country can and cannot afford to do is by design. It’s better to realize that now before it’s too late.