What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? (2018)

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Image via miff.com.au

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Documentaries like this one aren’t an easy ride. You are dropped into the middle of a cluster of stories with no context, narration nor exposition to help you understand where you are. You have to have the patience to sit back and let the stories unfurl and the characters to worm their way into your heart.

The title of this film comes from a negro spiritual that sings of the end of life or the end of the world. Director Roberto Minervini  is not a man of colour but he does seem to have a fascination with the American South. This is his first exploration of the experiences of people of colour and his outsider status is perhaps why he remains observational and resists contextualisation.

The film’s sumptuous and rich black-and-white cinematography is the first gift. Black-and-white often removes you from a sense of time and here you feel you might be in New Orleans in any time in the past few decades. The first protagonist is Judy Hill; brash, strong and unafraid to live her life and face trials and joys with equanimity. She has a big heart and some of the most moving scenes are when she is trying to help those around her. They are often silent as she shares her wisdom and vulnerabilities but what shines through is her resilience and empathy for those, like her, who battle for a fairer life.

The Black Panther Party for Self Defence meet and discuss their tenets of humility, respect and militancy. They door knock to find out about violence against black people, give out food to the homeless and protest against oppression and inequality. Titus and Ronaldo are two kids allowed to roam the streets but only until the street lights come on, to protect them from street violence. Kevin meticulously sews Mardi Gras costumes as he sings.

The four stories interweave, only intersecting in their underlying theme of black culture and autonomy. Ronaldo lectures Titus on the difference between race and skin colour. Judy talks of the trauma and criminal past that she has left behind. The Black Panthers talk of black power, with white power being simply legislation.

Some of the scenes are standouts and I found myself wanting more of Judy and the Black Panthers. They seemed best able to articulate what was going on around them. The protest march near the end and it’s repercussions are all the more chilling for the quiet, beautiful cinematography. The face of the black policeman says so much of the complexity of a society that has been built on inequality and oppression. There are no easy answers but the struggle is real.


Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

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