Maven's Nest

Reel Life: Flick Pix

- courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Remarkably researched and pointedly juxtaposed archival footage forces a reckoning with racial strife from the 1960s to now

By Nora Lee Mandel

Directed by Sierra Pettengill
Written by Tobi Haslett
Narrated by Charlene Modeste
Produced by Sara Archambault and Jamila Wignot
USA. 91 min. Not Rated
Release by: Magnolia Pictures - opens September 16 in NYC at Film Forum.

(at 2022 New Directors/New Films of Film at Lincoln Center and Museum of Modern Art)

Through extraordinarily researched military and broadcast archival footage, Riotsville, USA vividly illuminates overlooked inflection points in the racial turbulence of the late 1960’s. Artful contrasts forecast their deleterious impact on the continuing turmoil.

The title comes from the Potemkin-village training grounds, little known outside the Army and law enforcement, where Military Police, at bases with antebellum names, staged demonstrations of how to handle civil unrest. This was authorities’ first reaction to “riots” in Harlem, Watts, Chicago, Newark, Detroit, and over 100 cities from 1964 – 1968, that many there now call “rebellions”. The narration, written by Tobi Haslett and voiced archly by Charlene Modeste, says “people took revenge on cities that confined them.”

In 1967 President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed the National Advisory Commission On Civil Disorders, popularly known by its Chairman’s name as The Kerner Commission. A bestseller, the 1968 final report has been praised by both Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness and editor Nikole Hannah Jones’s The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story for the sensitive findings about structural racism and poverty. But neither points out what this film damns with visual evidence: the only recommendation of the report Congress funded was control of disorder. The resulting Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act sent millions of Federal dollars to local police, prisons, and courts through the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA), including how to use computers as a weapon.

With white officials and police from across the country observing in bleachers, MPs enact scenarios of rounding up “protestors”, while the Army cameramen focus on broken glass in the model town. The narrator muses if the participating soldiers are flashing back to their Vietnam War experiences pacifying natives, and later commentary notes the Pentagon, with circular reasoning, defends its use of tear gas in Vietnam as the same used in civilian law enforcement. (Decades later, Tony Gerber & Jesse Moss’s Full Battle Rattle (2008) showed U.S. soldiers training simulated war games at the Army’s “Iraqi village” in the Mojave Desert.)

Other neglected footage is interwoven from the 1968 Republican convention on isolated Miami Beach. Overshadowed through media and film by the Democratic convention in Chicago (see Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool to Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7), the portents are heavy. Security hustles Governor and debut presidential candidate Ronald Reagan past the few Black “Poor People’s Campaign” protestors. Ex-State’s Rights Party presidential candidate SC Senator Strom Thurmond insists on the convention floor: “The Number 1 issue is law and order!” Spiro Agnew puts Richard Nixon up for nomination as president “untainted by war, dissensions, lawlessness or threat of fiscal or moral chaos”. The on-screen comment says Agnew’s selection as Vice President was to appeal to voters of competing racist candidate George Wallace, but that reduces the GOP’s lasting Southern strategy to personalities.

During NBC’s Gulf Oil-sponsored convention coverage, bored Huntley & Brinkley don’t bother to check the inaccuracies in a news wire report about a “troubled neighborhood” in Miami where “sniper” fire against the police resulted in deaths of Negroes – one of several shibboleths the Kerner Commission had rejected. Pettengill finds local news footage where a Black reporter instead matter-of-factly details the police and National Guard over-reaction to how Liberty City dealt with a Wallace supporter provocateur – and is dismissed by his fearful white colleague. Bringing this full circle, we learn that the Miami police had trained at Riotsville.

While the commercial networks are all white, Pettengill found an experimental Black program on PBS precursor National Educational Television called “Public Broadcast Laboratory”. Clips include a frank protest song and panels of Black intellectuals and activists, such as Bayard Rustin and Dr. Alvin Poussaint, in sharp exchanges with white police representatives. We’re told the program was soon cancelled.

The documentary also points to other pointed commentaries by Black intellectuals and activists, including Dick Gregory and poet June Jordan, that were ignored or censored by mainstream media.

Haslett’s script is sometimes annoyingly elliptical with strained poeticism. Jace Clayton’s score, on analog synthesizers of the period, is the jarring antithesis to the soothing music in Ken Burns’s archival-based films; it intentionally makes you discomfited by looking at the past through today’s eyes.

Pettengill and her forensic research team provide a stark antidote for those who can’t remember the past and thus have been condemned to repeat it. Riotsville, USA is especially essential for those first looking back at the 1960s to see how we got here now.


Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews

My reviews have appeared on: FF2 Media; Film-Forward; Lilith, FilmFestivalTraveler; and, Alliance of Women Film Journalists and for Jewish film festivals. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.

To the Mandel Maven's Nest Reel Life: Flick Pix

Copyright © 2022