As police brutality and the militarization of law enforcement continue to be debated in America, it’s increasingly important to investigate the way those issues have shaped the nation’s past. “Riotsville U.S.A.,” Sierra Pettengill’s documentary that explores the model towns that were set up in the 1960s to train police officers for violent confrontation with rioters, seeks to fill an essential gap in that discourse. The film premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival and is currently gearing up for a September theatrical release, with the first trailer premiering exclusively on IndieWire today.
According to the official synopsis from Magnolia Pictures, “Riotsville, U.S.A.” tells the story of a turning point in American history where the protest movements of the late 1960s came into conflict with increasingly militarized police departments. Focusing on unearthed military training footage of Army-built model towns called “Riotsvilles,” where military and police were trained to respond to civil disorder in the aftermath of the Kerner Commission created by President Lyndon B. Johnson, director Sierra Pettengill’s kaleidoscopic all-archival documentary reconstructs the formation of a national consciousness obsessed with maintaining law and order by any means necessary. Drawing insight from a time similar to our own, ‘Riotsville, USA‘ pulls focus on American institutional control and offers a compelling case that if the history of race in America rhymes, it is by design.
“Sierra Pettengill’s transfixing and troubling archival documentary feels like watching a Ken Burns film through a kaleidoscope. Relying exclusively on remarkable pre-existing footage, Pettengill tells the story of the development of the U.S. military’s riot management program in the late ’60s, formed in response to the civil rights uprisings in cities across the nation,” wrote IndieWire out of Sundance.
Along with a star-studded group of collaborators, including the critic Tobi Haslett, who writes the keen and captivating running commentary, and masterful editor Nels Bangerter, who’s also worked with boundary-pushing documentarians Brett Storey and Kirsten Johnson, Pettengill periodically pokes and prods at this footage, zooming in to the point of pixelation or blurring the edges around figures to interrogate the meaning behind these moments.
“Riotsville, USA” will be released in theaters on Friday, September 16. Watch the trailer exclusively on IndieWire below.