Review: Made of Archival Footage, Riotsville, U.S.A. Harkens to Contemporary Times

This review was originally published in January 2022 for our Sundance Film Festival coverage.

Built entirely from archival footage taken from both commercial broadcast television and material shot by the U.S. military, the harrowing documentary Riotsville, USA paints a portrait of the United States in the wake of the late-1960s uprisings in places like Chicago and Detroit. Working as a professional archivist for artists such as Jim Jarmusch, director Sierra Pettengill (Town Hall) seems especially suited to constructing such an infuriating work in which we see the means by which law enforcement and the military ran drills in an Army-built fake town called Riotsville that illustrated how protesters should be dealt with during demonstrations.

With soldiers portraying hippies and other activists, and spectators filling up nearby bleachers to observe, manufactured civil disobedience was acted out and met with an over-zealous response. The demonstrations led to a situation that continues today: local police being federally funded and supplied with military-style weapons, vehicles and tactical gear. It’s all the result of the Johnson administration wanting big cities to be peaceful and his Kerner Commission’s report, which was meant to look into the root causes of such riots. The report accurately blamed institutionalized racism, poverty, and class separation, but all that Johnson took from the report was that local police departments needed to be shored up and fortified.

So many parallels between this period in American history and today can be drawn that filmmaker Pettengill and editor Nels Bangerter don’t have to explicitly say it. We’re literally watching the birth of a new style of policing and the institutional power structure that leads right up to today’s calls for defunding the police. Although it takes a neutral approach to its storytelling and fact-gathering, Riotsville, USA feels angry, wondering silently why we are still dealing with these issues in these supposedly enlightened times.

Riotsville, U.S.A. is now playing in select theaters.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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