In a country where white supremacists march the streets with impunity while black athletes are demonized for kneeling in protest during the national anthem, Italian filmmaker Roberto Minervini’s multi-narrative documentary “What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?” appears as an on-the-ground indictment of systematic racism in the U.S. and a testament to the grassroots culture of resistance actively fighting it.
Solemn in tone and indispensable in significance, the latest from an artist with a track record for surveying marginalized Americans is structured like a collage of incendiary and heart-wrenching moments that toe dip into social justice issues without staying long with any one idea. That lack of focus presents itself as a natural virtue of Minervini’s method, which favors real interactions among its subjects — as truncated or extensive as these may be — over-rehearsed answers to direct questions from behind the camera.
Skepticism toward outsiders exploiting underrepresented stories is always warranted, but Minervini demonstrates he’s worthy of trust not only because he’s dedicated most of his career to documenting unseen and disenfranchised groups, but for his commitment to humanist observation and not sensationalism.
Bookended by the unassumingly dazzling presence of New Orleans’ Mardi Gras Indian groups, “Fire?” takes place in the summer of 2017 between Louisiana and Mississippi as African American communities in the Deep South grapple with the horrifying and racially motivated killings of local men, including that of Jeremy Jackson, whose body was found charred and decapitated. Attuned to the gravitas of the piece, Diego Romero’s sultry black-and-white cinematography lends pensive beauty to this vehement dissection of deeply rooted oppression.
First we meet Ronaldo and his younger brother Titus, the former an outspoken ninth-grader contemplating his uncertain future, who represent those who will inherit this troubled land. Their tender ages don’t shield them from the knowledge of the powers that have historically enslaved, incarcerated and murdered people who look like them. Teaching Titus how to throw a punch in preparation for impending violence is, in Ronaldo’s mind, the most practical display of affection he can offer.
Since children of color are not afforded innocence in the same way as their white counterparts, the sibling’s bonding time features conversations about discrimination, gun violence and the fear of becoming another faceless statistic. Someday soon these boys will be black men subjected to the same pipeline of despair and adversity that landed their father in prison. But hope is not yet lost; it’s found in organizing. At night, the kids ride luminous bicycles with other black residents to let gentrifiers know there was vibrant life there before their intrusive arrival.
Likewise, with her fist in the air chanting “black power” and “no justice, no peace,” unapologetically militant New Black Panther leader Krystal Muhammad, currently the national chairwoman of the party, walks the streets of Jackson, Miss., with her revolutionary brothers and sisters to engage, educate, and collect information on the unpunished crimes that infected African American neighborhoods with fear and that government officials haven’t prioritized. An altercation with police caught on camera further sustains Muhammad’s stance against biased law enforcement with unchecked privileges to dehumanize.
Then there’s Judy Hill, a former addict turned empowered business owner. Unpretentious and welcoming, her bar, the Ooh Poo Pah Doo, doubles as impromptu community center where grievances are aired, painful truths are revisited and black men can cry. To listen to Hill means to hang on to her every ardent word.
Whether it entails reassuring her mother she won’t become homeless, consoling a friend reckoning with unresolved grief or singing for her ride-or-die clientele one final time, this modern-day Joan of Arc shines as a living monument to resilience and compassion born out of her own past with abuse and her undying empathy for others suffering similarly. One painful exchange with a woman dependent on drugs to cope with trauma devastates for Hill’s robust faculty to share utterly nonjudgmental love.
Rather than a declarative nonfiction statement on a specific evil contained within the spectrum of racial injustice, Minervini knits a stream of consciousness from collective fury and individual struggles. Yes, a deeper dive into any of these social ills would offer more concrete details, but it’s a visceral rage that the film is pushing to relay. It’s not enough to think of oneself as part of the righteous side, because the world is, literally and figuratively, already burning in the flames of hatred. In answering the call, the film proposes that only concrete actions make a dent in apathy.
Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes
Playing: Starts September 6, Laemmle Glendale