Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Sep 15, 2022 8:12 am 
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Riotsville releases Oct. 7, 2022 at Landmark's Opera Plaza Cinemas, San Francisco


A simplified look at riot control and the causes of unrest in America

Riotsville, U.S.A. is a documentary about American policies on quelling urban "riots" or "civil disorders" since the 1960's. As Warren Cantrell's Playlist review points out, the film is "provocative" but unfortunately also a bit "half-cooked" - confused and superficial. The film mentions the Vietnam War and knows that's involved, but its failure fully to take account of just how, is one sign it's "biting off more than it can chew," as Cantrell says: the whole subject is much more complex than is acknowledged in this catchy but sometimes disjointed treatment.

The film starts out with a provocative mix of Army and police training footage, along with late-1960s American television news reports and opinion segments, to present the unrest of US cities in the 1960s and government response, highlighting the involvement of the military. The story begins with President Lyndon B. Johnson's appointment of the Kerner Commission to study the issue, following a summer when a hundred cities had outbreaks of strife. Pettengill et al. accept the Kerner Report's conclusion: finding there had been no "outside agitators," as some claimed, they decided the source of the urban unrest was a polarization of America into two worlds, "Negro" and white.

But suppose it was never really that, that the conflict is one of class, and the anger is due to lifelong repression and disadvantage and being lied to, irregardless of race? This is what happened changing the whole system of government of Chile in the past few years through prolonged protests, as shown in Patricio Guzmán's new documentary My Imaginary Country. The World Socialist Web Site's review by Joanne Laurier is correct in pointing out that Riotsville is being blind to the much wider issues behind civil unrest over the past sixty years in this country, that attributing them to "white supremacism" is to "whitewash" the more complex causes.

The filmmakers expect us to be astonished to learn that at the time of widespread city demonstrations in US cities in the mid sixties there were two mock American towns constructed by the US military, dubbed "Riotsvilles." Looking like a crude version of the town sets of a Hollywood Western, these mock towns were designed to stage "riots" and develop methods of combatting them. Director Sierra Pettingill uses this public domain government footage of these "Riotsvilles" to posit the "racism" and the militarism behind them.

Pettingill, writer Tobi Haslett, and performer Charlene Modeste, assume a malign intent, not considering that the aim in quelling riots may have been more to preserve democracy than repress it. Democracy cannot flourish in a state of civic chaos. Of course there is the danger of excessive repression. But Riotsville, U.S.A. doesn't deal in subtleties but in big assumptions and firmly accepts the Kerner Commission "finding" of an American society split down the middle into black and white. Even if US society might have seemed that way back in the sixties, it certainly can't be drawn along such simple lines today.

The Commission famously proposed vast, costly social reforms. People bought and read the government report that was printed and widely distributed for a dollar, we're shown - even in Harlem - but the vast reforms it proposed were not carried out. It was decided the Vietnam War was all the government could pay for, not a war on poverty or unrest at home as well. Some "young staffers" of the Commission, we're told, declared that the civil unrest showed "a truly revolutionary spirit," but said staffers were subsequently "taken off the project." It was the Kerner Commission report's small addendum on quelling disorder, as this film says, that was the only one widely carried out.

Novel film footage of the mock riots - pretty impressive and this film's main selling-point - shows a large spectator' gallery of military and men in suits who applaud after the staged riot and its repression. Demonstrators with placards and wild hair wigs are one side, snipers another. All are military performers.

The film includes other footage and information. There was a "riot posse" assembled in Chicago before the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention, but disbanded as illegal. The Miami Beach Republican National Convention was situated, we're reminded, where it could be cut off from access by demonstrators. These details seem a distraction from the film's main objective - unless that objective is just to entertain, which at some points it does. This meandering segment comes together, finally, when one of the film's many on screen texts tells us (wouldn't a voice narrator have been better? And Cantrell notes the absence of any independent experts) that the police who quelled the organized "Negro" riots in the Liberty City section of Miami during the Republican Convention, which grew quite violent, where "trained at Riotsville." How that made them behave differently than they would have otherwise we are not told.

Other films have shown an economic basis of the militarization of US urban police and its infiltration by large machinery and equipment: it's just been very profitable for manufacturers of weaponry to sell it from the top down, and profitable for the police to be the beneficiaries of the funding behind such acquisitions. An intense documentary about young Blacks who have taken to the streets is Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis' 2017 Whose Streets? The most powerful documentary about the militarization of the US police is Craig Atkinson's 2016 Do Not Resist, a detailed and chilling account.

The filmmakers here, as they did previously, have worked from archival material. But they let themselves be led astray by it. They are enamored of it, and one can see why. It's quaint, sometimes surprising. But it leads them down rabbit holes and into narrow focuses. It is not that what they say is untrue; it 's just not the whole truth. And sometimes the tone, alternately arch or knowing, can be distracting.

Riotsville, U.S.A., 90 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 2022, showing at other festivals including True-False (Columbia, MO), Copenhagen, Seattle, New Directors/New Films (NYC), and San Francisco. Released by Magnolia, it opens Sept. 16, 2022. Metacritic rating 77%.

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