What You Gonna Do When The World’s On Fire?
(France/Italy/US, 123 min.)
Dir. Roberto Minervini
Programme: Wavelengths (North American Premiere)
Roberto Minervini, the expat Italian who’s made his life and art for the past decade in the neglected regions of the American south, is one of the most interesting documentary artists working today. His last film, 2015’s Louisiana: The Other Side, is particularly provocative. Divided into two unequal parts, about an impoverished white community overrun by drugs and a nativist militia, it has a decent claim to being the only documentary to predict and fairly represent the forces that gave rise to Trump.
In What You Gonna Do When The World’s On Fire?, Minervini stays in the south but shifts his focus, to cop his own phrase, to the other side, weaving together four storylines from the Black communities in New Orleans and Jackson, Mississippi. There’s a woman trying to save her bar, a couple of kids discovering what it means to be a young black man in the American south, a group of Mardi Gras Indians working on their costumes, and the New Black Panther Party protesting racial injustice.
Though much of it as shocking and urgent as Louisiana, it’s ultimately a different animal. Gone is the ingenious, off-kilter structure of Louisiana, supplanted by a slightly more conventional tapestry. Gone too is the surreal, bravura imagery of Louisiana’s second half, supplanted by refined black-and-white verité, almost all of it in medium-shot or close-up. And though I understand this is a point of contention, I, at least, don’t detect here the ethical ambiguities that have led to charges of lurid sensationalizing.
What You Gonna Do When The World’s On Fire strikes me as deeply heartfelt and engaged. The ways in which the storylines subtly diverge and converge, the insight into relationships of power and responsibility within families, the attention to modes of social and political organizing and the seeds of new forms of solidarity: these are all great accomplishments, and speak equally to the skill of a master filmmaker and to the resilience of his subjects.
In fact, I would go so far as to say that the film’s ingenuousness is my only—minor—sticking point with it. The black-and-white is a bit on the nose; some of the long scenes drag, particularly those of the New Black Panthers’ protests; the resolute focus on people keeps systems and structures literally and figuratively in the background; the horizontal structure can make the film feel static. At the same time, it is easy to guess Minervini’s ripostes to all those qualms, and sympathize with them as well. It may lack the electric charge of some of his previous work, but What You Gonna Do When The World’s On Fire? is possessed of a quieter energy that ultimately proves just as powerful.