Robert Minervini brings together four stories about black life in this subtle but strikingly elegiac documentary
Black cinema has been galvanised at every level, from blockbuster to arthouse to documentary, by the social-justice drive of the last half-decade. What You Gonna Do When the Worlds on Fire? is another worthy addition to that growing canon even if it splits its focus too much, to the detriment of the greater political impact it might have had.
Italian director Robert Minervini, whose documentaries have frequently focused on the American south, divides his attention between four separate strands about African American lives in the summer of 2017: Titus Turner and Ronaldo King, young brothers running free in the edgelands; Judy Hill, an inspirationally foul-mouthed former drug addict, about to lose her New Orleans bar to gentrification; Mardi Gras Indian chief Kevin Goodman, keeping tradition breathing through his costumery; and Mississippis New Black Panther party, taking to the streets to demand justice for a trio of suspicious killings they deem to be lynchings.
In the film, shot with elegiac finality in black and white, Minervini makes subtle communitarian and intergenerational connections between the stories. Weve been set free, but were still being slaves, Hill tells people at a local meeting. When a woman breeds children, she breathes fear. When she was pregnant, she was scared so theyre born to be scared. The brothers mother warns them to be home by the time the streetlights come on; cutting loose in the meanwhile, Ronaldo, 14, assures nine-year-old Titus that he wont get shot at that age. Their growing awareness of the limits on their freedom echoes the adults complaints about the white establishment: We dont get no justice. We get, Just for us.
But the Mississippi situation is so extreme that Minervinis easy drift starts to feel slack. One of the dead trio, Jeremy Jerome Jackson, was found decapitated. When the New Black Panthers protest outside the court building, several are Tasered and trussed. Some of the remaining members are struggling not to cry, their cries of black power simply there to bolster their own morale. This is the reality of the Black Lives Matter movement, the institutional and psychological barriers they face; it feels as if it needs more sustained attention, not the decorative flourishes Minervini draws on from the Mardi Gras strand. Now is not the time for sideshows.