This troubling and mildly surreal study of the tumultuous 60s in the U.S. and the choices the Government made to address the social discontent feels depressingly timely.
During a time of huge civil unrest, most notoriously the 1965 Watts Riots in LA, President Lyndon Johnson set up the Kerner Commission in order to investigate and suggest remedies for the social problems that had beset the country. The broadly liberal committee cited child poverty, police brutality, and institutionalised racism among the causes for unrest. They concluded that this could be remedied by a massive public spending programme, roughly the same amount that was then being spent on the Vietnam War. The commission also noted the need for increased police spending and training. With grim inevitability, it was on the latter that the Government decided to direct funds.
In order to train forces to counter the protestors, ersatz towns, ‘Riotsvilles’, were constructed, replete with shops with generic signs (‘Fashion Shop’) and unruly citizens played by soldiers, some of them sporting, what looks like, groovy 60s wigs.
The picture draws from archive footage of frequently heated TV debates, along with sequences of horn-rimmed glasses-wearing middle-aged housewives learning how to shoot rifles. In a darkly ironic note that would feel too on-the-nose if this was fiction, it is revealed that the 1968 Republican convention in Miami Beach, an anticipated flashpoint for trouble, was sponsored by a bug spray company, and that on the second day of protests, police deployed tear gas from a modified insect repellent spray truck. The inclusion of The Shirelles’ sweet ‘Soldier Boy’ feels like the filmmakers are maybe pushing the mordant satire angle a bit too far, but footage of the Riotsville cities, which weirdly brings to mind the fake Nuclear testing town in ‘Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’, is genuinely eerie, the weirdness augmented by Jace Clayton’s retro synth score. The account of public scaremongering and subsequent increasingly militaristic responses to civil protests is grimly familiar.
Riotsville, USA is released 31st of March
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