A boy leading his scared younger brother through a haunted house, a woman preparing to host a party, and a mother scolding her son for coming home past curfew. These are some of the images that greet audiences in the opening minutes of Roberto Minervini’s “What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?” On the surface, these introductions to the characters reflect typical scenes from across America. But after the subsequent two hours of this pointed documentary, a very specific slice of Americana emerges.
Shot during the summer of 2017 in the American South, “What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?” captures the daily lives of black citizens. Frustrated by recurring police brutality and a recent incident of harrowing racially-motivated violence, the film’s subjects have become increasingly disillusioned with contemporary American society. As they try to cope with the ongoing racial tensions and injustice and the associated anger and despair, they realize that they are stronger together than apart.
Past and present converge in the film, as a New Black Panther Party shows that the sentiments behind the Black Lives Matter movement are rooted in longstanding struggles. The activism and advocacy they promote aren’t, however, confined to similarly organized groups. As the film follows an array of characters young and old, there is a shared awareness of the deplorable state of race relations in America. In one particularly illuminating conversation, a concerned community fervently discusses the interrelated issues of prejudice, drugs, guns, and slavery. And as one man highlights the prevalent homelessness across the nation, the film seamlessly follows up with images of the New Black Panther Party offering food and drink to homeless people on the street. Minervi’s observational filmmaking style avoids any discernible narrative structure, but such examples of astute editing engage the viewer and express a cohesive theme.
Indeed, while the largely close range cinematography hardly evokes any particularly strong sense of place – outside of brief mentions of Mississippi and Mardi Gras related sequences – there is nevertheless a sense that the film is speaking to universal truths about the black experience in America. The elegant black-and-white color palette and its artfully composed silhouettes, reflect black bodies which could be found all across the country. Like the metaphorical Beale Street in James Baldwin‘s “If Beale Street Could Talk” and Barry Jenkins‘ stunning adaptation, the documentary’s subjects are, “every black person born in America…whether in Jackson, Mississippi or in Harlem, New York.” As the film asks the question, “What You Gonna Do When The World Is On Fire?” the film’s riposte is that its beleaguered black citizens will continue to do what they have done for centuries – resist and persist.