Filmmaker Sierra Pettengill says the first time she watched the U.S. Army training films at the heart of her new documentary “Riotsville, USA,” the grainy images were as stunning as the meaning they carried.
“I had this real whiplash, which I also think made its way into the tone of the film,” Pettengill says of her first viewing of this little-before-seen footage from the late ’60s. “Between the absurdity and the ridiculousness and how stupid a lot of it looks — then you’re kind of instantly whiplashed to true chilling violence.
“That state of toggling between those two,” she says. “That was my first reaction.”
“Riotsville USA,” which is in limited theatrical release, is a look back at the past that has unmistakable parallels to the present.
Its title comes from the name the Army gave to mock towns, which were built on military bases, where soldiers played the roles of both rioters and responders for an audience of military and law enforcement brass. The aim was to show how the Army thought local law enforcement might respond to civil unrest.
More broadly viewed, it’s a film that argues that the causes of civil unrest were widely known at the time — poverty, racism, inequality, among them — but leaders chose to focus on the militarization of law enforcement responses rather than addressing the root causes.
On the surface, these scenes of mock rioting are almost silly, Pettengill says.
“You know, you’re watching these soldiers in wigs and signs that say ‘Arrest Santa Claus’ or whatever,’” she says. “And then there’s a Black protestor, an actor, getting really violently shoved into the back of a tank while screaming his face off, and I was suddenly stopped in my tracks, seeing people with extreme amounts of power sitting in bleachers, laughing at that.
“I do really feel like that mixture of absurdism and deep, chilling, inhumane violence does feel like the country I know,” Pettengill says. “It’s so divorced from reality, and then the violence is always just right there, coming back to remind you that this is the real world.”
To understand the roots of “Riotsville, USA,” it helps to recall the history of civil unrest in the United States in the ’60s. The Watts riots in Los Angeles in 1965 were followed by similar urban uprisings in Chicago, Newark, and Detroit.
The last of those prompted President Lyndon B. Johnson to appoint a commission to investigate the causes and recommend solutions. When the Kerner Commission issued its report in 1968, it largely concluded that the riots were a result of Black and Latino frustration at the lack of economic opportunities as well as inadequate public resources such as housing, education, and social services.
The report was widely known. Bantam Books published it as a mass-market paperback that sold 2 million copies.
“Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal,” the report said in one of its best-known conclusions. “What white Americans have never fully understood — but what the Negro can never forget — is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”
Pettengill, whose previous films such as “The Reagan Show” and “Town Hall” have focused on similarly political topics, knew much of this. But the existence of Riotsville was a surprise when she encountered it in the pages of Rick Perlstein’s “Nixonland” biography of President Richard M. Nixon.
“The way that Rick contextualizes Riotsville really did make its way into the larger point of the film,” Pettengill says. “He introduces it after speaking about the Hughes Commission, which is another of these post-riot commissions, this one in Newark.”
Pettengill says the Hughes panel came to the conclusion that the country could either choose reality by addressing the root causes — or choose illusion. The latter meant responding to unrest with force instead of trying to solve its causes.
“Rick says the public chose illusion, and then kind of goes through a list of extreme programs that were implemented after the summer of ’67 in the vein of illusion. And Riotsville was one of them.”
Few of the Kerner Commission recommendations were ever adopted by Congress and Johnson, the film makes clear. The exception being a dramatic increase in the provision of federal funding and surplus military equipment to local law enforcement agencies around the country.
A view from the other side
With “Riotsville, USA,” Pettengill explains how she made the film entirely from obscure military film footage or now forgotten TV newscasts from the era.
“I appreciate when films uncover covert histories but I also think that gives us a little bit of plausible deniability,” she says. “To be able to say, ‘We couldn’t have known, we didn’t know.’
“It was crucial to me that Riotsville was not a secret. It was covered by the news at the time. Some of the footage in the film is from ABC. The Kerner Commission report was a best-seller.
“So making a film from material that wasn’t a secret would allow for the question of why have we forgotten this? Why didn’t we know it? What is the process of wiping out narratives like this?’”
“Riotsville, USA” also turns away from the familiar footage of Watts and Chicago and Detroit. Pettengill says to force viewers to consider those familiar images in different ways.
“That footage, it’s overexposed, and it’s been traditionally used to sort of justify violence against Black communities, and perpetuate a set of very damaging stereotypes about violence within those communities,” Pettengill says.
“We come to it with a certain set of ways of looking at it,” she says. By avoiding those kinds of images, she hoped to “make people actually look at what’s in front of them.”
Near the end of the film, “Riotsville, USA” finally shows civil unrest in the Liberty City neighborhood of Miami as the Republican National Convention was nominating Nixon as its 1968 presidential candidate.
“You’ve been watching the building of a state apparatus and watching training over and over,” Pettengill says of that decision. “When you arrive at that moment in Liberty City, you are actually actively watching because you’re looking for what you’ve watched borne out in the Riotsville trainings on the street.”
Answers are known
It’s a mistake to say the protests and policing depicted in “Riotsville, USA” are the mirrors of more modern-day conversations about police violence against minorities and public demonstrations for racial and economic justice, Pettengill says.
But they’re not entirely disconnected either, she says. The causes and solutions have been known for decades by now, too.
“The sort of extremity of the problem is treated kind of like, ‘Well, hold on, we just got to start discussing that; these are new ideas,’” Pettengill says of the way calls for reform are often greeted today.
“To see in the footage in 1967, panels from (Black leaders such as) Bayard Rustin, Kenneth Clark, Charles Hamilton — they are already weary of repeating themselves. There’s an exhaustion that pervades the film.”
For leaders and residents of underprivileged and overpoliced communities to have to keep repeating the problems and their causes is depressing, Pettengill says.
“But also I think it’s very empowering that there is a precedent,” she says. “There is no sort of room for argument that these are new ideas.
“It’s not a failure of imagination. It’s a failure of political will. And I think there’s a lot of room for action in there that I find really inspiring.”
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