Fear of Fear

Nick Pinkerton on Roberto Minervini’s What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? (2018)

Roberto Minervini, What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, 2018, DCP, black-and-white, sound, 123 minutes. Titus and Ronaldo King.

TWO ENTWINED VIGNETTES open Roberto Minervini’s What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, a documentary shot among black communities in New Orleans and Jackson, Mississippi. The first shows a child, brandishing a prop machete, strutting down the middle of a city street, howling challenges into the night in one of the peacockish costumes of the Mardi Gras Indians. The second shows two brothers, one seemingly just into his teenage years, the other a few years younger, cautiously walking the corridors of a strobe-lighted haunted house, the smaller whimpering and begging to leave while the older presses onward. This opening establishes the dynamic, in abridged form, that runs through the film, which is expressly concerned with the relationship between boldness and fear, self-display and concealment, the sally and the retreat.

The Mardi Gras Indians, though they bookend the film, remain somewhat obscure as characters, seen only in the process of preparing their ostentatious costumes and then finally, jubilantly, marching out into the streets. The brothers, however, will form one of the movie’s three principal narrative lines. The older is Ronaldo King, and the younger, Titus. They live together with their mother, Ashlei, although Ronaldo proposes that he live with his father once he’s out of jail. The boys are often in each other’s company, Ronaldo frequently prodding Titus along, admonishing him not to be frightened of the world while showing off his own physical daring, as when he clings briefly to the side of a moving train. At home, their mother lectures them on getting back inside before the streetlights come on and while doing so reminds them of a recent rash of shootings. At least once, the boys are seen in defiance of this command, when they go on an organized bike ride with community members who’ve decked out their bikes in Christmas lights—the idea, per the ride’s organizers, is to show out in the face of “violence and crime and gentrification,” to let “’em know that we are not afraid.”

Krystal Muhammad heads the ensemble cast of the New Black Panther Party for Self Defense, the second of the film’s feature players and a group explicitly concerned with such displays. They’re introduced at a roadside recruiting vigil in front of a tribute mural for Alton Sterling, a black man shot dead at close range by two white Baton Rouge police officers in 2016. In the course of the film, NBPP members are seen occupying themselves with the cases of two other deaths—twenty-two-year-old Phillip Carroll, who was found hanging from a tree, and thirty-year-old Jerome Jackson, whose decapitated head was left on a porch. Disbelieving official explanations for these deaths, the New Black Panthers (who are not official successors to the Black Panther Party) first conduct a citizen’s investigation into KKK involvement, including an armed march through Jackson’s neighborhood, which has been blasted with racist graffiti, to address understandably wary locals, and then a march to the Mississippi State Capitol.  

Roberto Minervini, What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, 2018, DCP, black-and-white, sound, 123 minutes. Judy Hill.

The film’s most powerful orator, however, isn’t on these marches. Judy Hill, the middle-aged owner of a struggling New Orleans bar, is instead seen giving an impassioned discourse on the apocryphal Willie Lynch’s infamous letter to fellow plantation owners detailing the process of psychological terror that could be used to subdue or break a slave––a legacy of fear Hill believes is imprinted in DNA. “That woman,” she says of expectant mothers, “she breed fear. When she was pregnant, she was scared. So they were born to be fuckin’ scared.” This pointedly follows soon after the scene of Ashlei warning her boys about the streets. Judy is a documentarian’s dream subject—visually striking with her swept-over blonde bangs, charismatic, and blessed with a natural sense of histrionics. She shares enormously affecting scenes with her elderly mother, Dorothy, and her cousin Michael, who pushes a broom around the bar, a haunted casualty of the penal system that Ashlei is trying to keep her boys clear of.

The different spheres of What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? never actually overlap—we never see Judy and Krystal in the same space—but they are linked in other ways. Some of these connections come through visual rhyme: The scene of the boys circling on their lit-up bikes, for example, is immediately followed by one of Judy, in a dress of glittering paillettes in front of a wall decorated with Christmas lights, performing an “Indian chant” rave-up with a band at the closing of her bar, a moment both sad and exhilarating. More generally, though, the film’s episodes are connected by their examination of the presence of fear, and the defiance of it, in black American life. “Why are you scared?” asks Ronaldo, egging on his kid brother to come closer to the shores of a placid-seeming body of water. “We don’t have one good reason to fear anybody,” one of the New Black Panthers shouts as the group prepares to approach the State Capitol. “I’m not afraid. I’m not scared,” says Judy on a phone call, unloading about the financial threat to her livelihood. 

What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? is the fifth feature by the Italian-born, Houston-based Minervini, and in several important ways it is a break from the films that came before it. His working method, which might be broadly categorized as docufiction, seems in many respects the same. Taking turns shooting on a single camera with cinematographer Diego Romero, Minervini favors long takes, abridged in the edit if at all, that largely retain the integrity of Judy’s remarkable rhetorical runs, like her tough and tender dialogue with Michael outside the cemetery where his mother is buried. Inspired by Jean Rouch’s concept of “shared anthropology,” Minervini has his performers enact scenes of their own devising in dialogues reflecting their own voices, in scenarios frequently drawn directly from lived experience. At times, however, the process is complicated by the protest material; for if a protest is in some regards a premeditated scene, the response to it may be anticipated, but never controlled—as in a startling moment when police tasers are brought into play.

Roberto Minervini, What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, 2018, DCP, black-and-white, sound, 123 minutes.

The first of Minervini’s features in black-and-white, What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? is a stylistic departure from his previous work, shot with an extremely shallow depth of field that renders people ultra-lucid. It’s also a departure in terms of subjects; while Minervini has remained in the Gulf Coast states proximate to where he’s made his home, and continues to have an interest in people living financially precarious lives, his previous films have focused almost exclusively on white subjects, the last of these being his The Other Side (2015), set among self-styled modern-day minutemen armed to the teeth and often found performing live-fire drills in the woods around Monroe, Louisiana. The film caught the way the wind was blowing well before the 2016 election, when every media outlet developed overnight an almost pathological obsession with the “white working-class.”

Now that everyone else has shown up on his turf, Minervini has lit out for new territory, like a good pioneer. As an admirer, on the whole, of his previous films, I confess to being wary of the departure, and of what his raised profile after The Other Side might have done to his instincts—his political op-ed in CinemaScope magazine is as clumsy and binary as his films are supple and multivalent, and a new film with sober black-and-white photography intended to evoke the visual language of the civil rights–era suggests encroaching self-importance.

Such misgivings are misplaced. Minervini’s weaknesses are evident in What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?—some of the passages with the boys succumb to the strained lyricism of his Stop the Pounding Heart (2013), for example—but so are his strengths. In fact, his latest work functions as a fit companion piece to The Other Side, a film very much concerned with a white American fear that goes much deeper than the coded language of “economic anxiety,” for it’s a sure bet that people who feel secure in their place in the world do not feel the need to amass military-grade arsenals. This is not a case of both-sides-ism on Minervini’s part. His depiction of the bellicose militia in The Other Side corresponds to that of the peaceable New Black Panthers in What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? only in the sense that both feel like collaborative efforts in which the groups depicted have displayed aspects of themselves that they would like to be seen—precise tactical efficiency in the first case, service of social justice in the second, with viewers, in each instance, given leeway to draw their own conclusions. (It is only in the scenes of the NBPP handing out free lunches in a homeless encampment that the shooting creeps towards the perfunctory, the dully dutiful.)

With two films, Minervini makes a compelling case—should anyone have failed to intuit this fact—that fear is one of the defining aspects of contemporary American life. In both films, which forgo on-screen titles or narration, providing figures to validate or invalidate the actual imminence of perceived threats isn’t Minervini’s concern; a concern doesn’t have to be legitimate, after all, in order to be acted upon. He is instead interested in observing how fear functions in shaping people’s daily lives, whether dominating them or kept in abeyance—through Ronaldo’s tentative teenage brio, Krystal’s confrontations with authority, Judy’s spontaneous eruptions of empathy. It ends as it begins, with flamboyant Mardi Gras Indians on the march, the sound of martial drums, and a new song, with a chant of “Let’s go get ’em”—a parting burst of brave noise in a film that offers much of its own.

What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? opens at Film at Lincoln Center in New York on August 16.