Singing the Blues: Roberto Minervini's What You Gonna Do When the World's on Fire?
America’s historical amnesia, moral pretension, and giddy culture of violence have long fascinated artists hailing from abroad. On the heels of a Film at Lincoln Center series dedicated to showcasing the cinematic renderings of America by non-American filmmakers (Another Country: Outsider Visions of America) is the unaffiliated release of the latest film by Italian-born filmmaker (and longtime Texas resident) Roberto Minervini. What You Gonna Do When The World’s On Fire? (2018) continues Minervini’s ongoing project of documenting the lives of American Southerners, communities that, at first glance might seem unreal or otherworldly to an elite liberal sensibility: bull riders and drug addicts, goat farmers and militia-men. This time, the filmmaker turns to Black Americans in Louisiana and Mississippi, his first depiction of a community of color. Stepping into unknown territory for Minervini, however, bears little resemblance to the detached observations of Frederick Wiseman, or the fly-on-the-wall portraits of the late D.A. Pennebaker; his is a highly immersive filmmaking process that yields (at times, uncomfortably) intimate results. At the precarious intersection of a White artist documenting Black lives, the obstacles to achieving this characteristic level of intimacy multiply, yet Minervini’s perspective, through a bit of a departure from his old ways, proves invaluable.
Minervini focuses on three unrelated stories of Black Americans: Judy Hill, owner of the iconic Ooh Poo Pah Doo Bar, located in a historically Black part of New Orleans; Ronaldo and Titus, brothers living with their single mother in a working class town in Mississippi; and the activities of the New Black Panther Party in the wake of the murders of Jeremy Jackson, Phillip Carroll, and Alton Sterling. The impressionistic dreamscapes of RaMell Ross’s powerful debut, Hale County This Morning, This Evening (2018), and the potent eulogizing and demands for accountability of Spike Lee’s When The Levees Broke (2006), are two portraits of Black disaffection in the South that will recall Minervini’s efforts here, but only in the most general sense. Dialed down from the more overt narrative impositions of his past work (the tentative love story in 2013’s Stop the Pounding Heart, or the escalating resentment of 2015’s The Other Side that segues into radicalism, for instance), Minervini offers a lyrical composite of different stories without the satisfaction of closure, of trauma and resilience that insists on the continuity between injustices past and present.
Originally envisioned as an exploration of the historical legacy of folk music in the South, the film takes on a meandering jazz-like form in its multi-story roundelay. A fourth, slighter storyline following the Mardi Gras Indians as they carefully construct bedazzled garments and headdresses is interspersed as mostly silent images of men at work, linking the struggles of Black Americans with those of Native Americans. The blues, weary but necessarily full of vitality, course through the film, inscribing tragedy with the beats of cyclical routine without minimizing the potent sense of yearning for an alternate reality.
The decision to shoot a film in black and white often falls under fire as an act of aesthetic posturing, a falsely achieved profundity that corresponds to the bogus generalization that art cinema values style over substance. What You Gonna Do When The World’s On Fire? was shot digitally in high contrast black and white and has weathered such criticism. These sentiments, however, come off as critical readymades rather than engaged observations on the film’s merits, not unlike the cynical belief that art films concerned with social issues are mere liberal palliation. Minervini, as a white European man making a film about Black communities, naturally runs the risk of inscribing a story that does not belong to him with the White gaze of his authorial impulses. But the filmmaker, keenly aware of the implications, adjusts accordingly; the effect is one of listening rather than observing, feeling a pulse rather than taking notes.
With over 180 hours of footage, no script, and minimal direction, Minervini’s process relies heavily on the sculpting powers of editing, while the absence of color discourages a purely aesthetic resonance. “Colour lends itself tremendously to manipulation of what’s beautiful and what’s not,” Minervini explained in a conversation with Notebook. And earlier, in a 2018 interview with Cinema Scope, Minervini describes his deliberate use of black and white to “[tie] these stories to the iconography of the Civil Rights era.” Indeed, the neutral palette lends a sense of visual balance to the three stories, and suggests a continuum not just within history, but within the lives charted by the film itself. End credits refer to Ronaldo as “The Older Brother,” Jill as “The Woman,” and so forth, thereby inscribing these characters as archetypes.
Judy delivers what are consistently the most jarring and powerful moments in the film. A singer and performer entrenched in the New Orleans music scene, she is also a victim of abuse and a recovered addict. Her charisma and role as a community leader in the present day has her frequently engaging in heartfelt discussions with friends and neighbors in need of guidance. In one scene, she shares stories with another victim of rape, cinematographer Diego Romero’s camera practically in their faces as they break down. There’s inevitably the sense of intrusion as one considers the practical efforts involved, and yet the characters seem not to notice. This creates the illusion that everything must be scripted, that things as we see them have been orchestrated, though they’re not. Minervini’s approach is unique in that he forges personal relationships in order to create the conditions for the sort of access his filmmaking thrives on, an essential step in reducing some of the distance between himself and his subjects.
Ronaldo and Titus exemplify the fear that courses through these Black communities and the handing-down of the means of survival from generation to generation. In the film’s opening shot, Ronaldo leads Titus through a haunted house as a symbolic rite of passage. A dutiful older brother, Ronaldo lectures on the scourge of gun violence, just as their mother delivers routine monologues on the importance of “sticking to the books” and getting home before sunset. At home, Ronaldo gives Titus the race talk: skin color can be caramel, chocolate, brown, but “that’s not your race. Your [race] is black.” Moments like these—so simple, so matter-of-fact—are devastating reminders that politics are unavoidable to certain bodies, no matter the age.
Minervini’s profile of the Southern chapter of the New Black Panthers, and their intrepid leader Krystal Muhammad, is unique to the rest of the film. After negotiations and quality time spent with the filmmaker (whose intentions were understandably scrutinized), the group allowed him to film their activities on the condition that they wield an active role in the selection of what is and isn’t being filmed. While we don’t get much personal time with any individual member, the tireless routine of the collective ultimately comes across. The Black Panthers are not outcasts, nor some rogue group, but an effort to organize communal, forceful responses to the irrationally cruel injustices committed against Black lives. Minervini shies away from documentary activism, there’s no comprehensive account of the Black Panthers’s organizational tactics, nor—as when Judy loses her bar—overt attention paid to the effects of gentrification. Instead, Minervini is interested in depicting the remarkable life force sustaining these individuals in the face of fear, violence, and a seemingly hopeless political present. Neglected, ignored, betrayed: the Black Panthers have no option but to resist; Ronaldo and Titus, despite the dangers of their neighborhood, will continue to play; and Judy, despite painful memories and financial hardship, will continue to sing.