Riotsville, USA – Film Review


This documentary by director Sierra Pettengill which tells the story of two real fake cities built on a few military bases in Virginia and Georgia by the United States government in the 1960s. They built these two fake cities – one-sided facades making facing rows of bleachers – for police across the country to come and learn new tactical measures to quell the violent protests that many American cities were facing at the time. Using soldiers from both army bases as pretend protesters, the government showed the various military and police dignitaries present how to quell civil disorder with all types of military weapons.

Pettengill’s documentary is comprised solely of stock footage from the 1960s, drawn from the government’s own films shot at the two Riotsville locations and from the network’s major news outlets. The film takes the viewer through the tumultuous decade when people dared to speak out and talk about the oppression they felt at the hands of government. The government’s own reporting told everyone what was already obvious: that the United States was a racist country. Flash forward 50 years, well, not much has changed.

Riotville, United States emphasizes the militarization of the police force and, again, nothing has changed. Back in the day, they popped out of vehicles like a mini-tank filled with piercing sounds and a pipe that expelled smoke and tear gas. The amount of tear gas used in Riotsville is second only to the amount of tear gas thrown at the black community of Liberty City, the site of the GOP National Convention in Florida in 1968.

Listen, this movie is going to make you angry. It made me angry. Straight from Riotsville 1967 to your local small-town police in 2022 that’s equipped with a tank they’ll never need or use, police forces across the country are spending billions on battlefield gear. Charlene Modeste’s hands-on storytelling takes you along the journey of Riotville, United States. And it’s a journey. From the imaginary protest of soldiers in a fake city to the real police brutality of black people across the country, then and now. Like before.

In a film with plenty of striking juxtapositions, there’s a particularly poignant one that begins with the audio of part of Senator Robert Byrd’s speech on the Senate floor, in which Byrd calls Martin Luther King Jr. a coward. who starts a riot and then flees to let the others pay the price. Next, a graphic appears informing the viewer that King was murdered six days later. The film then immediately cuts to a performance on Public Broadcast Lab of Jimmy Collier and Reverend Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick singing “Burn, Baby, Burn”. It’s an amazing song that Collier wrote after the Watts Riots in 1965. After the performance, another chart tells us that PBL was taken off the air when the Ford Foundation withdrew its funding a year later. Riotville, United States definitely worth your time and attention.


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