Meditation on a Racist Nation

What You Gonna’ Do When the World’s on Fire? is a powerful film. Set in a Black neighborhood in the US deep South years after the flooding from hurricane Katrina, the film tells a story of hope and despair, anger and love, and joy and sorrow. Political in the sense that all human experience is political, the film is even more so given it is a film about being black in an explicitly racist society. Yet, the overwhelming feeling of the film is one of human resilience and even goodness.

It is the summer of 2017. Two young Black men are dead after being murdered in a horrific manner. Since the murder of Trayvon Martin in Florida and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri a few summers earlier, protests had been taking place around the United States. The demands are simple: police and other white men need to stop murdering unarmed Black (mostly young) boys and men. Those accused of these murders needed to be tried and sentenced. Instead, the murders continue and the cops retain their freedom, with most even keeping their jobs. Although the setting of the film is New Orleans and elsewhere in the American South, the fact of the Black colony in the United States makes the physical siting mostly irrelevant. The people featured in the film live in that colony and experience the same fears and injustice as other citizens of the colony across the mother country.

The filmmaker, Roberto Minervini, hails from Italy and has made other films dealing with similar subject matter. In What You Gonna’ Do When the World’s on Fire?, he focuses on a few characters whose lives are economically tenuous. The color of their skin is part of the reason for their poverty, as is the history of their people in the United States. At the same time, the neighborhood they live and work in is being gentrified—a situation familiar to tenants around the world. The woman who runs a bar faces eviction because the building’s owner wants to sell the place. Her anger is legitimate and her understanding of how gentrification works is spot on. One of the best scenes in the movie takes place in her bar. It is full of customers who know the owner is losing her lease. As the conversation ebbs and flows, the customers and the woman make it clear she’s getting screwed by money and racism. Like so many other working folks, she wavers only slightly, acknowledging that she must forge on. Her mother wonders how she will be able to remain in her small apartment once the speculators take over the entire neighborhood. The daughter has no easy answers, only words of calm. The two brothers Ronaldo and Titus play among the railroad yards and wait for their father to get out of prison. Their mother counsels them regarding their future as young Black men in a nation that kills too many of their brethren. She fears losing them. Then there’s the Mardi Gras Indian Chief Kevin. His costume and group is part of a tradition described by Ronald Lewis, another Mardi Gras Indian, like this: “Coming out of slavery, being African American wasn’t socially acceptable. By masking like Native Americans, it created an identity of strength. Native Americans under all the pressure and duress, would not concede. These people were almost driven into extinction, and the same kind of feeling came out of slavery, “You’re not going to give us a place here in society, we’ll create our own.” This phenomenon could only happen in the United States—a nation built on genocide and the use of, breeding and trade in slaves.

The other element in this meditation on race and capital, race and the USA, are the New Black Panther Party for Self Defense. Inspired by the organization launched by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland in 1967, this organization is similar yet quite different. Overtly nationalist and for the most part operating as a solitary group, the New Black Panther Party for Self Defense present a militant alternative to the rest of the African-American political reality. Simultaneously, they provide those African American inclined towards militant politics with a disciplined organization devoted to their people and opposed to the white power structure. Their presence in the film involves an organized protest against that structure and a glimpse into a possibility forgotten by too many citizens of all backgrounds—the possibility of organized and militant opposition.

This is a film about love. Love between the brothers, between the mother and sons, between the bar owner and her mother. It is a film about desperation and defiance. The viewer watches the response to circumstances exacerbated by the police murders of Black men as they see the militancy of the New Black Panther Party for Self Defense and the singular defiance of the bar owner and her customers. Then there’s the older brother Ronaldo, who tells his mother he doesn’t want to make a living in the streets because he has seen what happens to those who try. This is his own defiance against a world that wants him in the streets so he can be controlled and watched. Chief Kevin and his Mardi Gras Indians defy the white man’s system by taking the feathers and dress of a people whose legacy has become one that symbolizes resistance and strength in the face of genocide.

Director Roberto Minervini set out to create a meditation on the state of race in the United States. He has succeeded in that and more. What You Gonna’ Do When the World’s on Fire?, is a penetrating look at the state of a racist nation. Minervini’s camera has no prejudices and carries no fear or hatred of its subjects. The truths of their lives and world embraces the viewer, illuminating their humanity and exposing the injustices of their situation.

For showings and more info, check out the website here.

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