Film Review: What Are You Gonna Do When The World’s on Fire?

Film Review: What Are You Gonna Do When The World’s on Fire?

Jade Burroughes reviews Roberto Minervini’s intimate, empathetic and necessary documentary.

Roberto Minervini’s latest documentarian instalment provides an intimate, empathetic and necessary meditation on the state of race relations in the American South and the detrimental impact of centuries-long racism. Despite the monochrome aesthetics, Minervini’s work grants a viscerally powerful insight into the lives of a marginalised community under threat of racial violence, gentrification, crime and the basic struggle of making ends meet. The documentary hones in on a specific time and place, Louisiana and Mississippi, Summer 2017, and relays the brutal killings of African American men Alton Sterling, Jeremy Jackson and Phillip Carroll and the fiery community reaction to their deaths. Yet this doesn’t deter the documentary’s wider relevance. The themes Minervini explores within this focused framework easily transcend time and place, illuminating a grim picture of race relations in the United States. Police brutality, the challenges of grass roots activism and socio-economic disenfranchisement of African American communities are permeable issues that form part of nationwide race-related struggles. Minervini’s choice to focus on the community healing process rather than the official investigation brings to fore both the inaction of officials and the resilience of communities for whom violence and injustice is becoming a near constant reality. The almost ceaseless cycle of brutal killings followed by a determined community reaction – a reaction necessitated by the inaction of authorities – is becoming a sadly familiar story in modern America and one that initiatives like Black Lives Matter seek to arrest.

The documentary comprises of four narrative strands, each with a unique angle on the threats facing African American communities.


Ronaldo & Titus

The first narrative, focused on half-brothers Ronaldo King (14) and Titus Turner (9), gives us an insight into the fear dominated and necessarily cautious everyday existence of African Americans in the South. The notion of fear being central to the African American experience is highlighted in Ashlei King’s motherly interventions as she anxiously attempts to guide the boys through a system set against them. A conversation about setting curfew, which on the surface appears to be the mundane practise of a mother disciplining her sons, quickly becomes qualified as a life or death situation when recent neighbourhood shootings are evidenced as the need for such a curfew. Ashlei’s discourse makes it clear that the boys’ conduct in the outside world will ultimately decide their fate. That is, whether they will remain free and alive into adulthood.

There is a sense of optimism in these brothers, with Minervini documenting them participating in adventurous fun, jumping onto trains and riding their bikes through the neighbourhood. Nonetheless, this image of young boys seeking to take the world as their own is bittersweet. The two demonstrate a hyperawareness of their environment; an awareness of the pertinent dangers of being an African American and the structural constraints that will prevent them achieving true autonomy. The practise of slicing together scenes of boyish fun with cold reality culminates in a scene in which Ronaldo is teaching Titus to fight. Ronaldo makes it clear that this is not a leisure activity but a way for Titus to defend himself, an idea disturbing in itself. However, even more disconcerting is Ronaldo’s admission that this lesson may be futile, since ‘people don’t fight anymore, they like to shoot’.

This astute observation from Ronaldo, at the tender age of 14, highlights a fine-tuned awareness of the grim realities of American society, an awareness that is continually sharpened during interactions with his mother. She warns him of corrupting societal influences, namely drug abuse and crime, which she emphasises have landed a number of family members in prison. In this way, Minervini shows us a world that is pitted against African Americans from their youth – a world in which there is a frighteningly familiar fate of incarceration or death, an outcome the youth are warned against and must work to avoid.


Ooh Poo Pah Doo

The second narrative is that of Judy Hill, a bar owner and victim of sexual abuse and drug addiction. In this segment we see the coping mechanisms developed in communities to navigate the turmoil of institutionalised racism. Her ‘Ooh Poo Pah Doo’ bar acts as both a social safe space and a cultural hub and consciousness raising centre, where concerns can be voiced by the local African American community. Judy makes use of her sharp understanding of the legacy of discrimination and devotes her life to inspiring hope in others. We are given a glimpse of meetings staged at her bar, which show the undefeated resilience among community members whose spirits thrive in group situations, an example of the powerful metaphor that a whole fist is harder to cut off than a single finger. The relentless determination of Judy’s narrative is sheering. As an individual that has kicked her drug habit and now devotes her life to helping others, she fights for social justice while struggling to maintain ownership of her bar in the face of unjustified threats of economic repossession. Her story not only demonstrates the power of community based activity but also inspires great admiration for these advocates who, parallel to their fight for justice, face various socio-economic constraints.


Black Panther

A less personal but nonetheless informative insight into endemic racism in America is offered by the narrative centred on the Black Panther party for self-defence. In this, we see an organisation trying to tackle the problems alluded to in the previous two narratives, using ideology, ‘civilian investigation’ and aid to the poor. The national chairwomen, Krystal Muhummad, dominates this section, and we see her organise black power rallies and engineer projects to raise awareness of the recent killings. The party’s efforts are underpinned by a desire to rectify the shortcomings of local authorities and official investigations. More than any other narrative, this segment explores the irony of problems that exist in the ‘greatest country in the world’, with a large portion of time devoted to the issue of homelessness. The group attribute these problems to the white power they consider inscribed in American legislation and institutions. Indeed, in a visceral statement they proclaim that the groups who were ‘on our ancestor backs’ did not disappear, they are still here, now they simply wear suits. The editorial style of the documentary is most significant here; every time the narrative returns to the Black Panther party, the group are demanding justice for a different name, highlighting the everyday reality of violence within African American communities and, in the view of the party, necessitating efforts to secure justice where the system fails to.


Mardi Gras

The fourth narrative strand, focused on the Mardi Gras Indian movement, has been dubbed a minor strand by many critics because it is relatively unexplored. However, I think the role of the Mardi Gras narrative exceeds a ‘musical interlude’ and can instead be seen as a poetic metaphor. Though interventions are intermittent and relatively unexplained, with only occasional glimpses of decorative costumes and music making, these clips bind the other three narratives together. They demonstrate the way culture binds communities in times of healing and can inspire a sense of belonging and a cause to fight for. Although deeper exploration of the Mardi Gras cultural practises would have provided great insight, perhaps in the form of a discussion about threats to cultural practises in the modern age, I don’t think it’s fair to mark it as a minor stand or claim neglect from Minervini.


Overall, this documentary strikes a clever balance between inspiring a sense of urgency and dread, and giving an account of an undeniably disadvantaged but ultimately resilient community fighting for dignity, justice and respect. This balance ensures that the problem of race relations in America is still viewed as a monumental issue, but also that the cause for equality is not lost. Minervini provides a necessary account of the American dream gone wrong, revealing the detrimental underbelly of those continually excluded from its glory and inciting justified indignation in viewers, who are left with both shock at the atrocities still plaguing the American South, and reinvigorated admiration for the grass roots advocates of social resistance. The latter group remain stealthily optimistic in the face of setbacks at the hands of a system engineered to ensnare them.

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