soldiers in a V formation
Courtesy Gene Siskel Film Center

After protests in many major American cities shook the country’s establishment in the mid-60s, Lyndon Johnson assembled what would come to be known as the Kerner Commission (after Illinois governor Otto Kerner, who headed it) to study and recommend solutions to the racial and economic issues that inspired the widespread unrest. Their report, published by Bantam Books in paperback, quickly became a bestseller. But the sweeping reforms the commission called for were mostly ignored, except for a line item toward the end to boost funding for law enforcement. Some of this new money went to the construction of model towns on army bases in Virginia and Georgia. Dubbed “Riotsville,” they were stage sets where police departments and the military playacted command and control tactics to quell inner-city turmoil, complete with bleachers full of officers and politicians cheering and laughing as soldiers dressed as “hooligans” and “rabble-rousers” got their heads bashed in and helicopters clouded all of the ersatz Main Street with tear gas.

Sierra Pettengill’s disquieting documentary uses only archival footage shot by the military and clips from period news coverage to explore this uncanny episode in the country’s history. As fake as the towns and protestors obviously were, the training law enforcement groups received in these Riotsvilles was all too real. Their violent strategies to snuff out unrest outside the Republican convention in Miami and the Democratic one in Chicago in 1968 were taught on those sets. While Pettengill’s sympathy for the largely left-wing activists and community organizers is clear, her use of strictly period footage that has rarely screened before—and certainly never for a wide audience such as a major broadcast network—lends her film a depth that would’ve been absent if she presented a bunch of contemporary talking heads explaining the flaws and lapses of the establishment. These odd, sometimes amateurish frames put the viewer back into that tumultuous time in a way that no amount of outraged words ever could. 91 min.

Gene Siskel Film Center