The Long Arms of US Slavery

Poster for the film Riotsville U.S.A. – Fair Use

Two new films, Riotsville USA and The Chocolate War, offer valuable insight into mechanisms of economic and racial injustice in the US and West Africa

The Chocolate War  (directed by Miki Misrati, 2022; 80min)

A look at the very bottom of the chocolate supply chain and the legality of contemporary child slavery

If by chance your attention has been focused elsewhere recently, you may have missed the Supreme Court’s Big Chocolate decision. Laying down a meaningful landmark in the nation’s fraught history over the slavery economy, the Court in 2021 ruled 8-1 that US chocolate manufacturers cannot be held legally responsible for the exploitation of enslaved children, even if their business model depends on such abuse.

The Chocolate War, which had its world premiere at this year’s CPH:DOX, updates viewers on the legal battles over the darkest segments of the industry.  Director Miki Misrati’s third documentary on chocolate embeds with a small group of determined human rights attorneys. The blue-chip companies they are up against are not only aware of the systemic human rights violations they depend on, they even signed a major agreement 20 years ago to work to end child slavery. Since then, however, the problem has only gotten worse.

The global chocolate industry, dominated by a handful of large corporations, is estimated to be worth over $50 billion. Prior to being processed and consumed in the US and Europe, where the major manufacturers and the largest consumer markets can be found, most global cocoa is sourced from only two countries in West Africa, Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana. In these two countries alone, 1.56 million children are suffering the harvest, almost all of them in hazardous jobs, according to a 2020 University of Chicago study.

Misrati’s simple yet powerful film follows attorney Terry Collingsworth and his partners as they shuttle between West Africa and Washington DC, gathering evidence and visiting plantations, speaking with current and former victims and with industry representatives. They are suing two major multinationals on behalf of a half dozen former child trafficking victims from Mali, a country which shares a border with top producer Cote d’Ivoire.

Remarkably, no one involved in the lawsuit seems to deny the reality of the abuse or the slavery. The legal questions instead revolve around who is responsible and where the case can be tried.

Offering some hope to the victims and their lawyers, in Nestle USA vs. Doe, the Supreme Court last year remanded the case back to US District court where it will be tried again.

A profile as well as an investigation, the film does a good job educating without narration or editorial, leaving viewers with several profound and complex issues to grapple with. The most obvious is how on earth to stop a megaindustry that forces generations of children into hard labor, swinging machetes and chainsaws and dragging heavy loads through cocoa forests full of pesticides, in order to feed the chocolate habits of consumers around the world. The whole industry would clearly prefer that the reality isn’t much discussed, and it largely succeeds. This contributes to an overall lack of awareness among consumers, who typically make their purchases without any knowledge about or interest in where their chocolate comes from.

Sadly, it is virtually impossible today to separate cocoa that is cultivated by ethical producers from cocoa cultivated by abused children. Harvests from multiple plantations are typically mixed together in local markets before being sold for export. And according to Collingsworth, industry certifications like Fair Trade and Rainforest Alliance are primarily marketing techniques controlled by the corporate manufacturers themselves, creating a “fox watching the henhouse” scenario that renders these imprimaturs basically meaningless.

Though the film doesn’t delve much into alternatives, there have been recent attempts toward cacao-free chocolate and lab-cultured cacao, questionable propositions which may or may not ever take off. Perhaps more exciting is the recent news that the European Union is looking to ban all products linked to forced labor. If the EU follows through and enforces a ban, the move would amount to a global game changer for the chocolate supply chain, putting significant pressure on the US to follow suit.

Is there any ethical way to eat chocolate today? This look at the industry through the eyes of human rights investigators offers a good place to start trying to figure that out.

The Chocolate War, in an online preview before release, can be streamed on 12 October 2022 by registering here: .


Riotsville, USA (directed by Sierra Pettingill, 2022; 91min)

Merging remarkable found footage from the National Archives with philosophical critique, this bold visual essay explores the 1960s origins of the militarization of US police forces

In the wake of large-scale riots that exploded in the mid-1960s, from Watts (1965) to Chicago (1966) to Newark (1967) and nationwide following the assassination of MLK Jr. (1968), the US government, in keeping with its long tradition of simultaneously oppressing and fearing its Black population, shifted strategy.

The new paradigm called for a militarized approach to community uprising. In public, President Lyndon Johnson announced the establishment of the Kerner Commission to investigate the root causes of the upheaval while also insisting that “crime must be dealt with forcefully”. Behind the scenes, the US military under his command started an extraordinary new program employing theatrics and spectacle—including fake towns overrun with popular outrage—to train soldiers and police officers how to “demonstrate the presence of superior force” in US cities and put down what they called “outside agitators”— that is, fed up members of the community.

Director Sierra Pettengill, a filmmaker and archival researcher, merges found footage with the judicious use of critical inquiry via voiceover and in the process strikes a splendid balance between synthesis and analysis in an atypical, almost poetic form. The uncanny montage of government and media footage dissects itself even as it finds its shape, offering a spellbinding perspective on US imperial domestic policy and its consequences.

The gentle yet cutting narrative voiceover (written by the talented Tobi Haslett) weaves uncomfortable questions and etches lines between the grainy footage from another generation and our own ultra-high resolution present.  Zooming in to the pixel level, the two eras aren’t so easy to tell apart.

Pettengill’s film, produced by Laura Poitras’s company Field_of_Vision, thus draws a direct connection between the bizarre sight of plainclothes servicemen performing with wigs and raised fists on military stage sets in the 1960s and the reality of militarized police violence in America today. As we watch the unrest unfold at the 1968 party conventions in Chicago and Miami Beach, we witness the state’s fantasy of forceful domination over citizens being realized and, as if on a loop, a new era of racially-informed law enforcement emerging.

Riotsville USA is full of fascinating historical detail and little treasures from the archives. We are (re)introduced to the surprisingly progressive Kerner Commission report and, in a brief clip that may be hard to imagine happening today, see paperback copies sell like hotcakes on the city street (the Commission’s all-too-sensible recommendations were soon subverted by those in power). Particularly welcome here is the inclusion of lost public TV footage. Viewers may be surprised at the breadth and depth of the discourse and the diversity and authenticity of the perspectives seen on the early television talk shows of the Public Broadcasting Library (precursor to PBS that was taken off the air in 1969). Implicit here is the question of whether there’s anything we might learn from the PBL model that can help us engage more wisely with similar issues today.

Pulling back, the black and white histories represented in this powerful new documentary can help us understand how we got here, and as we zoom out even further, where we might go as we continue to wrestle with the long-armed legacy of US slavery.

Riotsville USA opened in theaters on 16 September 2022. 


Yosef Brody Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and the past president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility (PsySR). Follow him on Twitter @YosefBrody.