African Americans have been fighting for equal rights for decades. On paper they seem to have achieved a lot by now, but in practice it seems that they have not progressed any further. African and other colored Americans are still more likely to be arrested by the police and demonstrably more severely condemned by the judiciary. Black parents are terrified that their child will be shot in the street; a real fear, because African Americans are more often victims of violent crimes than whites. And even though we’ve had a black president by now, equality is further away than ever. We saw that, for example, during the summer of 2017, when demonstrations by the American alt-right movement Unite the Right in Charlottesville, Virginia, got seriously out of hand after a demonstrator with a vehicle crashed into a group of counter-protesters. One person was killed and several injured. It was yet another racist incident in this decade. During that summer of 2017, Italian-American filmmaker Roberto Minervini, who often focuses his sights on the downside of ‘The American Dream’ and the underbelly of society, especially in The Deep South, with his camera in Louisiana and Mississippi . In “What You Gonna Do When The World is on Fire” (2018), he follows a number of black people in their own personal struggle against injustice. The film’s title is a reference to a song by blues pioneer Lead Belly.
Minervini weaves together four different stories / perspectives. We follow Kevin Goodman, a Mardi Gras Indian Chief as we see himself preparing for the annual parade through the streets of New Orleans. The exuberant, often colorful (although we don’t see that in this black and white film) outfits are made by hand, a job that takes months to complete. Anyone who has seen the television series “Treme” will experience much more of this special cultural phenomenon, which is in danger of being lost in modern times. In “What You Gonna Do …”, the scenes with Kevin serve mainly as a local color and an expression of cultural heritage that the black population does not want to be taken away from. Much more specific are the scenes with Krystal Muhammad, leader of The New Black Panther Movement. She leads the protests in the street, following the death of black youth, often through unlawful acts by the (white) police. These scenes need little comment, as each time protesters call for justice for yet another victim. Jerome Jackson, Alton Sterling, Phillip Carroll – the fact that the list is so long is telling and underscores the importance of the protests and struggles being fought here. Muhammad seems to tolerate Minervini; he is allowed to film her because she is looking for the widest possible audience for her message. But otherwise he must not interfere in anything.
It gets more personal with Judy Hill, a woman of about fifty who knows the tricks of the trade. She is the prototype of a survivor: after years of abuse and assault, which turned into a serious drug addiction, she has recovered from a deep valley and shows her resilience. She now owns a bar, which also serves as a community center, where people can come together to talk about everything that concerns them (again a wonderful parallel to the series “Treme” by the way). Judy is a warm, powerful and connecting personality, a woman who also knows how to play the camera in an excellent way and who attracts attention like a magnet. But her bar is in financial trouble. For the unity and social control in the neighborhood, it would be a disaster when Judy’s bar is closed. Also very charming are the two half-brothers Ronaldo (14) and Titus (9), whose mother repeatedly presses them hard to be home before the streetlights come on. If the film had only consisted of footage of these two boys, it might have been even more effective, because they show what it is like to grow up as a black child in a world where racial inequality and ‘racial profiling’ have such an enormous stamp. presses on society. Feel free to play outside if you have just been told that a neighbor and her six-year-old child have been shot. Yet they cycle fraternally through the streets; the dreamy, expectant and introverted Titus and the more tried and tested Ronaldo. The elder tries to prepare his brother for what is to come and teaches him boxing, among other things. Because, he says: “It still helps you. When you’re my age they use guns. “
“What You Gonna Do When the World is on Fire” is on the long side with more than two hours, which means that a repetition of moves is lurking. Minervin I could have cut his film, which now looks a bit messy. Not least because not every main character receives the same amount of attention. The filmmaker’s choice to shoot in black and white is probably an aesthetic – and perhaps also to underline the contrasts between white and black on a stylistic level – but actually that artistic way of filming distracts from the message, which is deadly serious. . For the African American population of the US, life is better than ever, but at the same time, life is worse than ever. Minervini only partially exposes this contradiction in his film. Most impressive are the personal stories of Judy and the brothers Ronaldo and Titus; they make the impotence felt and tangible. The key question remains: what kind of film would this have become if an African-American director had made it?