Stream It Or Skip It: ‘Riotsville, U.S.A.’ on Hulu, a Quietly Seething Documentary Outlining the Roots of Modern Civil Unrest

The documentary Riotsville, U.S.A. (now on Hulu) grabs history by the lapels and gives it a good, rousing shake. Director Sierra Pettengill uses U.S. military and broadcast-TV archival footage from the late 1960s to piece together a polemic essay about the violent, escalatory roots of modern-day civil unrest – most notably, near-surreal footage of riot-control training exercises taking place in faux city streets dubbed “Riotsville.” The film aims to shed light on why police forces have become heavily militarized, and the citizenry more heavily armed, and does so with vital assertiveness.

The Gist: A liquor store, a pawn shop, a “Tin Can Super Market” complete with banner specials in the windows – 59 cents for two lbs. of cottage cheese – and other plywood main-street storefronts line a fake street constructed inside a military base named after a long-dead Klan member and advocate for the pre-Civil War South. A busload of military brass arrives to fill a bleacher stand and watch as soldiers pretending to be civilians smash windows and throw rocks, and heavily armed MPs arrive to demonstrate their new techniques for dealing with violent mobs: A helicopter swoops down and unleashes a torrent of tear gas. A team of soldiers tosses a canister through an upper-floor window and kicks down a door to apprehend a sniper. Looters and rioters are rounded up, cuffed and shoved into paddy wagons. When it’s over, the brass applauds as if they just watched an elementary school drama production.

Narrator Charlene Modeste calls these scenes “dream riots” and a “fantasy of conquest and invasion.” Between 1965 and ’67, several major U.S. cities suffered incidents of violent civil unrest, prompting President Lyndon Johnson to put together the politically moderate Kerner Commission, led by Illinois Governor Otto Kerner, which would illuminate the reasons for so much unhappiness and suffering. The subsequent report – a bestseller, published in paperback for $2 – stacked up considerable statistics showing how people in predominantly Black neighborhoods were often hungry. They didn’t have enough jobs. They lacked sufficient housing. And they were frequently targeted by police. The recommended program would cost just as much as Johnson was spending on the war in Vietnam.

That didn’t jibe with what Johnson and others wanted to force into the public narrative, namely, that Black agitators were riling up the populace. An addendum at the end of the report mentioned the possibility of beefing up police budgets, and that point was exploited, while all the others – you know, the ones in which Black people’s basic needs weren’t being met – were ignored. Thus, a couple Riotsvilles were born, and community police forces visited them for training. Those forces acquired tanklike vehicles and massive amounts of tear gas, a chemical weapon the U.S. military was criticized for using in Vietnam. Its reply? I’ll paraphrase: But it’s used on our own citizenry as a law enforcement tool.

We see footage of White grandmas from suburban Detroit learning how to shoot revolvers, you know, just in case. We see Public Broadcast Laboratory – a predecessor to PBS – TV footage of Black leaders smoking pipes and cigarettes while discussing the causes of civil disobedience, and Black men singing protest songs. We see NBC News coverage of the 1968 Republican National Convention in Miami Beach, brought to you by Gulf Oil, who also manufactures a highly effective bug spray blasted from a can like a cop with a gas mask spewing tear gas from a hose. Modeste’s narration asserts that violence in Miami streets during the RNC was largely ignored, because so much of the media focused on the inevitability of unrest at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Miami residents managed to assemble local leaders for a meeting to discuss the conflict, and we see footage of Black people talking, but nothing comes out of their mouths. Either the sound was never recorded, or it was lost, a subtitle reads.

Photo: Everett Collection

What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: The 2017 doc LA 92 is a sister film – it covers similar material, the 1992 Los Angeles riots, using only archival material.

Performance Worth Watching: Modeste’s voice is calm, collected, assured and righteously acidic.

Memorable Dialogue: Modeste on the Chicago DNC: “Some media outlets sent their war reporters. Others sent TV critics.”

Sex and Skin: None.

Our Take: Riotsville, U.S.A. is a dense, fascinating documentary, its tone quietly seething, its visuals a hypnagogic patchwork collage of footage meticulously assembled to illustrate damning hypocrisy, ironies and outright lies. It presents a throughline explaining how the systemic roots of racial inequality were bullseyed by a President-appointed panel – and then steadfastly ignored. It was a complex problem needing a complex solution, but the easier thing to do was to try to eradicate dissent like an irritated suburbanite wielding Gulf insecticide to combat pesky flies.

Pettengill doesn’t link the events of the late 1960s to the modern day, but she surely intends us to arrive at a conclusion: This is why the murders of Michael Brown and George Floyd and too many others occurred, along with all the subsequent violence. America is caught in a cycle of preventable violence. And the more heavily armed and divided the populace becomes, the harder it’ll be to break.

Unlike other docs that aim for objectivity, but rarely get there, Riotsville is purely subjective, an essay-on-film that’s shrewd, rational and pissed the f— off. It generally sidesteps the more commonly addressed major events of the ’60s, including the Chicago Seven and Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, for mostly forgotten – and occasionally goofy – fodder, ranging from long-lost progressive-politics roundtable discussions to news reports rife with erroneous information. And, of course, scenes of men, adult members of the military, play-acting recreations of the Watts Riot like it’s a community theater production. It’s so bizarre. And amazing that someone found it and put it in a film.

Our Call: STREAM IT. Riotsville, U.S.A. is a rousing and incisive documentary gamely tackling the most crucial social problem in modern America. The more things stay the same, it seems to say, the harder they are to change.

John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at