Documentaries are rarely “neutral” and often can be political statements as is “Riotsville USA”. Given the degree of civil unrest in the United States between 1965-70 such as witnessed in Watts (1965), Chicago (1966) and Newark/Detroit (1967) the United States government constructed two simulated main streets in army bases in Virginia and Georgia. In these simulated towns soldiers and law enforcement officers learnt the techniques of crowd control in the face of simulated riots and civil disturbances.
This sounds reasonable but putting a political spin on this at the time it was perceived by the U.S. government and its white population that the “negroes were rioting. As blacks were subject to many forms of racism and discrimination was all this training really a question of “political repression”. That is the tone the narration establishes. There is no attempt to be “neutral”.
The documentary true to the times through archival footage shows a frightened and often racist white America and a frustrated and often angry black America. This anger and frustration of black America is seething again in our times but supported by many of all races in the face of police atrocities.
The documentary explains that in July 1967 President Lyndon Johnson established The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders chaired by Governor Otto Kerner. LBJ’s view was that riots were most often caused by “agitators” whereas the reality is that maybe they were caused by poverty and discrimination. The Kerner Commission, as it was known, made 4 key recommendations. It called for more jobs to be created, more affordable housing, more education and so very relevant today the establishment of a minimum income. The black community was given some hope but the only measure implemented by the US Congress based on a Supplement to the Kerner Commission Report was an increase in federal funding to police. Again given today’s calls in the United States for “defunding the police” asserts more historical relevance.
Some importance in the documentary is given to the 1968 disturbances at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago and the 1969 Republican National Convention in Miami Beach.
There is an underlying theme to the documentary and that is America acts as a colonial power towards its poor people. It warns that the camera footage of the burning police car is only a moment in time and that the causes of that police car being set on fire may be a continuum of past oppression and abuse. There are two scenes of military and law enforcement in the stands watching the simulated riots in Riotsville. I did not see a single black face watching the simulation. That was not mentioned in the documentary but it speaks volumes to me of the isolation of American blacks from the power structure!
Once again given the recent events in the United States indicative of some elements of the police forces out of control “Riotsville USA” becomes more than a forage into unpleasant disturbance of the past.
RKS Film Rating 75/100.
The director is Sierra Pettengill
You can see the trailer here https://vimeo.com/753020230 .
The film begins its theatrical run in Canada on November 25.