'What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?' illuminates African-American lives in New Orleans and Jackson, MS
Judy Hall is a name that will be on everyone’s lips after the New York Film Festival premiere of Roberto Minervini’s What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? The Italian documentary filmmaker follows half a dozen African-American subjects in his beautifully shot black-and-white film, but Hall is his most charismatic. A New Orleans club owner who cares for her aging mother, she confronts many obstacles as her story unfolds, not the least of which is the rent hike that may cause her to lose her business. The result of neighborhood gentrification, it is also displacing others in Hall’s community, including her mom who lives in a rented home.
Hall appeared at a post-screening press conference before the September 30 premiere, along with Minervini and two other subjects from the documentary. Fashionably clad in boots and a sequined dress, she responded to a question from the press, and then was singled out by moderator Dennis Lim, the festival’s curator. He asked her about the filming, rightly gauging the force and significance of her survival story. In one of the documentary’s most riveting sequences, Hall comforts a woman who is struggling to kick her drug habit, the result of years of abusive relationships. She tells her about her own horrific loss of innocence. Hall’s humanity in that scene, and in others with her cousin and her aging mother, mark her as an extraordinary woman, and in Minervini’s eyes, an incarnation of the eternal feminine. She told Lim: “He came in as a human being…with his heart on his sleeve.”
What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? interweaves three other narratives of life in New Orleans—that of a single mother, Ashlei King, and her two boys Ronaldo and Titus, and Native American Flaming Arrows Mardi Gras chief Kevin Goodman, along with that of the New Black Panther Party based in Jackson, Mississippi. Minervini never establishes a sense of place, depicting the two cities as an amorphous South. Upon reflection, nowhere would the resolve of the new Black Power movement bear fruit than in the still-infamous capital of Mississippi for which Nina Simone wrote “Mississippi Goddam.” When the Black Panthers were asked why they agreed to appear in the documentary, Krystal Muhammad replied that at first some members worried that Minervini was an FBI spy. “They’re still white folks,” she said.
In the end, when Muhammad discovered that the Italian director was also filming in New Orleans, her home town, she softened. “Everything we do is whited out in the American media,” she observed, referring to the deaths of three black men under investigation by the party in the course of the 2017 filming. “I looked at his eyes,” Muhammad says of Minervini, “and they seemed honest.” Unlike the other narrative threads, the Black Panther segment does not rely on personal narrative. It effectively portrays the party’s rhetoric and its training of would-be members, although early scenes appear staged, and are at best didactic. As he does in most of the narrative threads of the film, Minervini wisely keeps a female as his focus—Muhammad is so authentic a revolutionary, a mix of idealism and military discipline and swagger, that she is in her own way as exciting to watch as Hall.
The most poignant segment of What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? begins with Ronaldo, 14 years of age, and Titus, 9, in a “funhouse.” Titus is so frightened, he wants to double back and make a quick escape. Later, there are leisurely scenes of the brothers visiting a local bike shop, walking along the railroad tracks, and heading home at dusk—yet the funhouse terror lingers in their mother’s lessons. Ashlei King’s rule is that the boys must be home as the streetlights brighten. When Ronaldo is rebellious at school, Ashlei reminds him that his younger brother looks up to him and will follow his lead. It is a gentle scolding, and one in which Ronaldo learns both responsibility and how to survive as a black boy in America. In this narrative, Minervini appears to isolate his subjects, the boys appearing together, while Ashlei is seen in profile, and not often with both of her sons. Her voice is what unites the Kings, Minervini suggesting that universal human experience of hearing our mother’s voices in our heads as children—and for the rest of our lives, as Ronaldo and Titus must.
Minervini has lived in the United States for over a decade; his previous film, The Other Side (2015), is a disturbing portrayal of the outcasts of West Monroe, Louisiana, drug addicts and members of a right-wing paramilitary group. In that film and in this one, the Italian filmmaker’s visual style and narrative integrity can be compared to the pioneering American documentarian Robert J. Flaherty, best known for Nanook of the North (1922). Flaherty won an Oscar for Louisiana Story (1948), set in the bayou of Louisiana. That film is not a documentary—it was commissioned by Standard Oil, which was then despoiling those natural wetlands—although it features local people and captures a historic moment. The latter also distinguishes What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?
In part, Minervini’s genius derives from his status as an outsider whose memory does not reach back to the tumultuous Civil Rights Era; this is apparent in his quixotic approach to the Black Panther Party. If there is also a touch of Flaherty’s romanticism in all of the documentary’s stories, and in cinematographer Diego Romero’s framing of its human subjects, the fourth and most fleeting subject falls into the realm of magic realism. What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? is bookended by Kevin Goodman, whose beautiful hands fashion the feathered and bejeweled costumes he dons to dance in the Mardi Gras parade. He represents America’s storied past that even John Ford revered in his better moments, so his presence at the Christian ritual seems at first equivocal. In fact, Goodman floats through the documentary, an ephemeral figure who is weaving, not unlike Minervini, an eternal narrative of birth, death and rebirth.