Riotsville, U.S.A. Image

Riotsville, U.S.A.

By Ray Lobo | September 16, 2022

NOW IN THEATERS! Director Sierra Pettengill’s Riotsville, U.S.A. is everything you can ask for in a documentary: informative, probing, and lyrical. Cinematically speaking, one may think that everything that could be said about the 196os has already been so. However, Pettengill and writer Tobi Haslett put such cynicism to rest. How is it that this film, of all the many made movies about that era, works so well? It works by focusing on specific events and how they’re emblematic of the period in which they occurred. In turn, this then allows us to reflect on our current era. Pettengill accomplishes the difficult with style and ease.

The central thesis is how the state coordinated to shut the door that was temporarily kicked open by protestors and activists. The titular town symbolized that coordinated effort to contain civil unrest. Using archival footage from the U.S. military, we learn that Riotsville was a place without inhabitants, a simulacrum of a city, used by the state to train its armed forces to quell and dismantle protests. It was a sort of postmodern city wherein the state recreated the Watts riots, and, as Pettengill beautifully says, it was also the place where the state “assembled its fears.” The staged riots were part theater of the absurd and part racist spectacle. Military personnel played themselves in the role of anti-protest troops and, as if the irony were not rich enough, also played the roles of unruly protestors denouncing the Vietnam War. African American service members played the role of protest agitators. Riotsville was indeed a reflection of America’s psychopathology.

The director connects the dots from the volatility of the American citizenry in the 60s, to Lyndon Johnson’s Riot Commission and its attempt to get to the root of American dissent, to the Commission’s unfulfilled recommendations, to the backlash by Republicans and their politically manufactured “Silent Majority.” If, as Gore Vidal puts it, our country deserves to be called “The United States of Amnesia,” Riotsville, U.S.A. is an attempt to recover those lost memories. Pettengill reminds us that The Riot Commission’s report made very clear-cut structural recommendations. It proposed increased spending on housing, education, and welfare to aid inner-city communities to ameliorate unrest. Such spending required taxing the wealthy, which is an action that congress, both then and now, is hesitant to undertake.

The titular town symbolized [a] coordinated effort to contain civil unrest.”

The filmmaker notes the political class’ hypocritical refusal to tax the wealthy in order to enact the Commission’s recommendations all the while blowing money on the Vietnam War. Riotsville, U.S.A. brilliantly uses the aesthetic of its archival footage to not only place us in a historical era but also to inform and critique state power. Footage of the 1968 Republican National Convention cuts away to an ad by its sponsor, Gulf Oil. This is a clear reminder of the joint interests shared by both the political and capital classes. While one subjugates the domestic citizenry, the other uses its capital might to conquer the citizens of Middle Eastern countries.

Pettengill masterfully brings the narrative full circle. Protests broke out during the RNC in the predominantly African American neighborhood of Liberty City. The police response was intense. Some of those involved trained in Riotsville. As noted by thinkers from Michel Foucault to Noam Chomsky, the challenge for the state is how to discipline and manufacture consent in a “free” democratic society. There are many techniques to choose from.

Riotsville, U.S.A. demonstrates that when the state combines physical violence with the appropriate media messaging, even the most justifiably unhappy population can be controlled. The question is, can those techniques work all the time, and for how long?

Riotsville, U.S.A. (2022)

Directed: Sierra Pettengill

Written: Tobi Haslett

Starring: Charlene Modeste, etc.

Movie score: 9/10

Riotsville, U.S.A. Image

"…everything you can ask for in a documentary..."

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