Things are better than ever before, and things have never been worse. Such is the paradox that undergirds so many aspects of American life these past few years, and such is the paradox that Roberto Minervini seeks to explore to somewhat mixed results with his latest documentary, “What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?” Visually forceful and narratively understated, the verité-influenced film leans hard on its lush black and white cinematography in its attempt to offer a poetic snapshot of African-American life in the Deep South.
The film interweaves four (though it’s really more like three) main threads with just one shared connection: they all are centered around African-Americans living in Louisiana and Mississippi in the sweltering summer of 2017. The fact that the end credits list each figure with their given names attached to a character-archetype (such as “The Woman,” “The Older Brother,” and “The Mother”) speaks to film’s desire to mine the specifics of each thread for their larger import.
That’s certainly the case with “The Mardi Gras Indian Chief,” Kevin Goodman. Apparently representing a specific cultural practice under threat from the modern age but still soldiering on, Goodman and his thread get the least screen-time, and seem to have made it into the final edit just the visual and textural opportunities his feathery garb can offer. And hey, it looks stunning in high contrast black and white, so fair enough.
“The Woman” (Judy Hill) and her story offer a rather similar thematic through-line, but Hill occupies what is no doubt the bulk of the film’s narrative real estate thanks to her mega-watt charisma and comfort before the lens. A middle-aged bar owner under threat of expulsion, Hill is more than just a simple victim of gentrification. She’s a steel-spined survivor, someone who beat back drug addiction and a history of abuse to become a warm and unifying force in her community.
Brothers Ronaldo King and Titus Turner represent the future of that community. Aged fourteen and nine years old, respectively, Ronaldo and Titus aren’t just comfortable before the camera, they make it feel as if it doesn’t exist. Whether they’re biking through the empty streets (their mother insists they return home before night falls, knowing full well the dangers of a dark street for a black youth) or hopping onto moving trains, the two boys are hyper-aware of their surroundings, hyper-aware of what plagues it (Ronaldo and his mother speak frankly about drugs and incarceration), and unafraid to go out and claim it for themselves.
Finally, we have the New Black Panthers. Of the three main threads – because, again, Mardi Gras Chief Goodman offers little more than visual embellishment – the Panther sequences are the least intimate. For the most part, Minervini shoots them exclusively out in open protest, a limitation that forces a subtle but effective editorial approach. Every time we return to one of their protests, the Panthers demand justice for one more name. First they’re out for Jerome Jackson, then Phillip Carroll, then Alton Sterling. Minervini never needs to highlight it, because the growing list says it all.
Still, that subtle approach isn’t quite as successful through the rest of the film, which never builds on any of the aforementioned themes. Minervini tends to back off as soon as he’s introduced a new idea or a new narrative texture that’s well worth exploring. In some ways, “What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?” feels more like a travelogue, paying casual glimpse to these many fascinating spots, but never stopping too long because there’s plenty of road ahead.
Part of that might have to do with the nature of its production. Though the film officially counts as an Italian production, don’t mistake its director for some foreign interloper, parachuting in to underprivileged communities in order to bolster his “serious auteur” credentials. Minervini has been living off-and-on in the U.S. since 2000, and has spent his entire cinematic career exploring and exposing idiosyncratic pockets of the American South. That isn’t to say that his years of experience have made him some unimpeachable expert, least of all in working class African-American neighborhoods of New Orleans where much of this film is set, only that his mix of outsider’s status and convert’s diligence offers him valuable perspective as a documentarian.
Or at least, it could. Because one of the issues with “What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?” is that often feels uncomfortably pulled between those two worlds. Minervini clearly has a sophisticated understanding of the United States’ current social/political climate, but seems to pull his punches in places, unwilling to explore such questions when given the opportunity to do so, perhaps out of a desire to not alienate the film’s international audience. The resulting work knows exactly where to look and what to ask, but never sticks around long enough to learn anything. “What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?” is hardly a disappointment, but it does, in places, feel like a missed opportunity.
“What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?” world premiered at the Venice Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.