What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?

Review by Manuela Lazic @ManiLazic

Directed by

Roberto Minervini

Starring

Dorothy Hill Judy Hill Michael Nelson

Anticipation.

Minervini is a talented, curious non-fiction filmmaker, and this title is both attention-grabbing and chilling.

Enjoyment.

Slowly but surely, Minervini unravels his subjects and their plight.

In Retrospect.

A wake-up call to the cold, hard reality of racism.

Roberto Minervini’s vital documentary follows in the wake of a series of brutal killings of black men in the US.

In his latest non-fiction film, Italian-born director Roberto Minervini explores the sociopolitical make up of the American South where he has been resident for over a decade. Unlike his previous films, which arose from pre-existing relationships he had with locals, this new film was born off his desire to dig deeper into the reality of racism in America.

Minervini has spoken openly about how close he is to the people he films, and here once more he takes the time to build a genuine, life-long rapport with various citizens of Louisiana and Mississippi. He is determined to preserve the dignity of his subjects, and collaborates with them at every stage of the filmmaking process. He uses long takes which function not as a forceful agitator but rather as a catalyst: his role is to generate moments that speak to a wider reality.

Minervini follows three sets of people who are presented in separate but gradually aligning chapters: Judy Hill is a dynamic middle-aged woman struggling to keep her business afloat despite systemic pressures and a difficult past; Ronaldo and Titus are two teenage brothers hanging out and learning to avoid the kind of trouble suffered by Hill; and finally, the members of the New Black Panther Party, filmed as they protest and attempt to gather information about the barely-investigated series of brutal murders of African-Americans in their neighbourhood.

With its close-up-heavy, fly-on-the-wall approach, What You Gonna Do… resembles cinema verité. But by admitting his personal involvement and collaboration, Minervini is denying both this supposedly “objective” point of view, as well as its opposite – the idea of a “home movie” created between friends. As its title suggests, this slow-burn film captures the lives of its subjects from a political angle, one that is inextricable from the identities of these individuals as black people living in a still-racist South, but also from the perspective of Minervini as a white, European outsider.

The film doesn’t tell you anything you haven’t heard on the news: when Ronaldo and Titus’ mother warns them not to stay out after nightfall to avoid getting shot, it feels as if Minervini was betraying a typical foreigner’s naivety about racism in the South. But his attention to the manner in which people speak about their conditions (in one harrowing and touching scene, Ronaldo explains to his younger brother the difference between race and skin colour) and their experiences with the system soon reveals this naivety to be of the good kind – a compassionate curiosity about the Other.

The sequences following the New Black Panther Party feel particularly remote, as the activists, in their signature attire and filmed (like the rest of the movie) in black and white, seem almost like relics of the 1960s. But here, too, it is Minervini’s relentless interest in and compassion towards these people, despite his difference, that helps What You Gonna Do… transcend the traditional separation between black subjects and white journalists. A heated protest near the end of the film proves that the Panthers’ fight is far from over.

By building up to this explosive but hardly surprising moment, Minervini demonstrates, as though unintentionally, that it is only because of our culture’s inability to see the present as a continuation of the past, and every person as equally real, that one could ever truly believe the Black Panthers, and racism, to be irrelevant in 2019.

Published 16 Oct 2019

Tags: Roberto Minervini

Anticipation.

Minervini is a talented, curious non-fiction filmmaker, and this title is both attention-grabbing and chilling.

Enjoyment.

Slowly but surely, Minervini unravels his subjects and their plight.

In Retrospect.

A wake-up call to the cold, hard reality of racism.

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