What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? review – New Orleans as gothic carnival

In his latest missive from the American South, Roberto Minervini leans in on a poetic portrait of Southern black life in all its grace, mystery and darkness – but falters the further he ventures from his wonderful heroine Judy Hill.

Sukhdev Sandhu

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

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

Italian-born, America-based Roberto Minervini’s documentary fifth feature opens with two contrasting scenes. The first, taking place one evening in New Orleans, involves a group of black Americans dressed up in what seems to be Native American costume: they carry ceremonial swords, holler and roar, and act as if they own the streets and gas stations across which they fancy-step.

Is this a special occasion? A pageant of some sort? There are hints of Mardi Gras, of carnival. Carnival brings with it a cluster of conceits: of the world – for a brief moment being turned upside down; of resistance through rhythm; of slaves sloughing off their servitude.

This is followed by images of two black kids – one maybe a teenager, the other younger – inside what appears to be a haunted house. The lights are dim and flicker menacingly. Distant voices and corrugated rumbles are heard. The walls are a mess of images – bubbles, target signs, ambiguous as cave drawings. The boys’ faces are anxious. The younger one whimpers and groans. “I don’t want to do this,” he cries. They tread falteringly, their forward motion halted by the appearance of laser trip wires. This is a fun house that’s not fun, an unpleasuredome, carnival turned gothic.

Here then: the American South. A place both mythical and real, dusty and overdetermined – yet also alive, raw, combustible. It’s part of America and, for some, it’s deep deepest America. Fundamental America, perhaps fundamentalist America. But for some it also stands outside America – impervious and resistant to what’s going on in the rest of the country. Contemporary figures are referred to in World’s on Fire – among them Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin, two of the better-known black Americans killed by the police in recent years – but, for the most part, Minervini’s film could have been made at almost any point in the past few decades.

Stasis is never far from the thoughts of Judy Hill, the film’s heartbeat. She could be in her late thirties or her early fifties, and has a past that seems to have involved drugs. Her hair is dyed blonde and she wears big hooped earrings. She runs a struggling bar that serves as a community centre as much as a drinking den.

“We was fuckin’ doomed a long time ago as black people,” she declares to her customers. “I’m talkin’ about from years ago when my grandmother was a young girl. As black people we’ve been pushed out a long time ago.” Her thoughts are as dark as the prospects of the men and women around her; she calls them, “the people I love, want to help, embrace”. She is a confessor figure, a righteous preacher, the mother some of them never had. She looks great in a spangly outfit dancing to old-school R&B.

Another film would have focused solely on her. World’s on Fire also looks at life, or lifelessness, through the eyes of those two boys in the funhouse – Ronaldo and his younger brother Titus. Their dad’s in jail and they themselves are constantly chided by their mother to be careful when out on the streets. She knows, like they know, or soon will know, that young black men in America are both feared and disposable.

Ronaldo encourages Titus to box, urging him to throw punches as, wearing a stars-and-stripes T-shirt, he ducks and weaves. They mooch around by a lake and by rail tracks. One cries out, “We should jump on a train and go all the way to Florida!” He makes Florida sounds like Shangri-La.

The pair’s drifting, how they notice dragonflies, their fragility and growing wisdom: this is where the film breathes and reveals most, where it evokes, however fleetingly, the likes of David Gordon Green’s George Washington (2000) and, before that, Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1978).

Less successful are those extended sequences tailing the activist group the New Black Panthers as they protest against police violence. Their rhetoric is passionate: “We have waited on these crackers hand and feet for 400 years and we still got taxation without representation, 100 years of Jim Crow, the back of the bus. You can’t eat only white pie.” But how big is the membership? How did the group emerge? If these kinds of questions are too journalistic to interest Minervini, he might instead have chosen to delve deeper into members’ interior lives, to go beyond the spectacle of clenched fists and rigid chest-puffing.

World’s on Fire never manages to bring the different elements of the narrative together. It’s neither truly immersive nor is it able to establish a critical distance from its subjects, whose speeches and interactions often feel stagey and choreographed. Diego Romero Suarez-Llanos’s high-contrast black-and-white photography is initially striking, hinting at a kind of holy minimalism, but its impact soon ebbs and, combined with finicky framing and lingering shots of fingers and feathers, is reminiscent of fussily art-directed record sleeves or art calendars.

Minervini wants to do the right thing. To make a film about the South that doesn’t patronise it or treat it as a toxic terrain from which anyone right-minded should recoil. To confront head-on the dark and seemingly implacable forces that make the neighbourhoods in which many black Americans live seem more rather than less like penal colonies. To register and even revere those struggles in a visual language abounding in filigree and chiaroscuro and grace notes.

It’s an enormous undertaking. He’s not there quite yet.


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