It sounds like the stuff of horror movies: military men in gas masks and full bodysuits cruising down the streets of a major metropolitan area, spraying aerosolized radioactive material on the unsuspecting populace, even directly on playgrounds packed with children, just to see what happens. And yet, sadly, these horrors played out in real life, right here in St. Louis.
Target: St. Louis Vol. 1 is an eye-opening, stomach-churning look at a stain on American history. In the days of the Cold War, the US military wanted to conduct experiments on the dissipation of radioactive material to aid in planning of potential attacks on the Soviet Union. Initial studies were attempted in Minneapolis, but the military’s (unexpected) candor resulted in massive pushback, so a second study was planned in a “densely populated slum district”—the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis. The city was chosen for its appropriate Soviet-ness (concentrated population, similar buildings, proximity to a river), the city government was given a tall tale about the test’s actual purpose, and the citizens were told…nothing. The experiments were conducted in 1953 and again from 1963 to 1965 and, perhaps most appallingly of all, it appears that outside of collecting baby teeth to determine radiation exposure levels, no real studies of the effects of the experiment were ever conducted, no conclusions drawn from the poisoning of tens of thousands of (of course, largely Black, largely poor) American citizens. The experiments remained a secret until 2012, when Dr. Lisa Martino-Taylor (now a professor of sociology at Southern Illinois University—Edwardsville) uncovered them and made them the focus of her dissertation, grabbing local media attention along the way.
Writer/director Damien D. Smith (best known as an actor, with appearances in the TV series Snowfall and The Purge) gets to the heart of the matter by centering his film on testimonials from the people who were there and have lived with the after effects. One early attention-grabbing scene has three former Pruitt-Igoe residents seated at a kitchen table, recounting all of the friends and relatives who had fought or died of cancer—it’s not a short list. We meet Tony Perkins, a man whose childhood injury inexplicably resulted in uncontrollable keloids (swelled scar tissue) that now, decades and multiple surgeries later, leave baseball-sized growths on his face and neck. Two of the more compelling contributors are Ben Phillips, whose detail-rich remembrances bring life at Pruitt-Igoe alive (and who filed a class action lawsuit against the government on behalf of all of the victims), and Chester Deans, Jr., who incisively summarizes the sociological aspects of what happened and why without sugarcoating.
At just under an hour, Smith keeps the narrative tight, opening with a brief history of Pruitt-Igoe (a group of towering apartment buildings that started as an aspirational home for the city’s minorities before being overcrowded and allowed to fall into disrepair) before charging through the main narrative, propelled largely by those testimonials and Dr. Martino-Taylor’s historical research. Smith also ties the story into the larger history of experimentation by the American government on its Black citizens, from the Tuskegee untreated syphilis study to former state Rep. Maria Chappelle-Nadal’s more recent fight over radioactive waste at the Bridgeton landfill and Coldwater Creek. Archival footage and photographs are deftly used throughout, although sometimes they are augmented with cartoons to illustrate what cameras didn’t capture. Most of the illustrated sequences are distracting in their crudeness, although the scenes of gas-masked soldiers silently going about their work are suitably haunting.
Target: St. Louis is understandably one-sided—the perpetrators of the experiment are either dead or are corporations or government institutions who unsurprisingly declined to participate, but what could they possibly say to explain away poisoning tens of thousands of unwitting people anyway? It’s an appalling moment in American history, and this film shines a powerful and much-needed spotlight on it. | Jason Green
Target: St. Louis Vol. 1 will have a special free in-person screening at Washington University’s Brown Hall on Friday, November 5th at 7:30pm as part of the St. Louis International Film Festival, and is also available for home viewing through November 21st for $5. Further information about tickets, passes, forms of access, and the complete film lineup is available from the SLIFF 2021 website.