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There’s a beautiful strand delicately woven through What You Gonna Do When the World’s On Fire? that traces the easy interaction between 14-year-old Ronaldo King and his half-brother Titus Turner, 9. Raised by their strict-but-loving single mother Ashlei to be alert to the dangers of the streets, the boys walk and talk, sometimes sharing their hopes and fears, sometimes just aimlessly goofing off as they tool around New Orleans on their bikes, visit a carnival funhouse, play among stacks of used tires, walk the railway tracks or look out over the water from the banks of the Mississippi.
Titus is a sweet kid curious about what life has in store, but twitchy enough to suggest he knows a lot of it won’t be good. Ronaldo has a tougher bravado but is nonetheless guarded. He’s protective of his brother while striving to set a good example; at the same time he’s both excited and apprehensive about his father’s imminent release from prison.
It’s in these scenes — shot like the rest of the film by Diego Romero Suarez-Llanos with grace and agility in the gorgeous, high-contrast tonalities of black and white — that director Roberto Minervini’s characteristic docu-narrative style is at its most effective. The interludes make you hungry to know more about the boys and their family life. Their absence of self-consciousness makes you forget the camera and appreciate both the scrappy moments and the warmth of their fraternal bond, as well as their oneness with a milieu that could betray them at any time. This is a part of the country where too many African-American kids their age don’t make it into adulthood, or find a path that doesn’t involve drugs or crime.
The contributing social factors of ingrained racism, injustice, gaping income disparity and rapid gentrification are discussed throughout the unhurried two-hour film’s four parallel threads. It traffics far less in poetic lyricism than the U.S.-based, Italian-born director’s more cohesive recent features, The Other Side, about down-and-out drug addicts in Louisiana swamp country, and Stop the Pounding Heart, which observes a cautious romance in the Texas Bible belt. More often, the new film is talky and didactic, its shortage of raw power making it just as often numbing as stirring, despite its plaintive statements about inequality.
This part of America is fertile territory ripe for examination, yielding memorable fiction like the magical realism of Beasts of the Southern Wild or the gritty mosaic of HBO’s Treme, as well as the searing humanism of great documentaries like Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke. Minervini hits the mark only some of the time, usually when Ronaldo and Titus are onscreen.
The film’s dominant strand follows Judy Hill, a firecracker of a personality who, at 50, has to some degree conquered her difficult past as a sexual abuse survivor and drug addict and achieved her dream of running a bar. That establishment, dubbed “The Ooh Poo Pah Doo,” serves as a community gathering place for locals to drink and talk, many sharing stories of painful family histories that stretch back to slavery. Their personal reflections reveal much about existing in a perpetual state of fear.
There are tender scenes between Judy and her cousin Michael Nelson, who shyly admits that he doesn’t know the date his mother died while he was in prison, nor where she was buried. Judy takes him there, and in one of the film’s more wrenching moments he becomes overwhelmed at her gravesite. Due to rising rents and property values in the gentrifying area, Judy is forced to shut down the bar during filming, in addition to dealing with the threat of eviction faced by her 87-year-old mother Dorothy.
Judy’s strength and resilience are moving, but the fact that she’s such a natural performer is both a plus and a drawback. She never engages directly with the camera but seems always aware of it, and the extent to which she’s acting — albeit playing the part of her authentic self — is problematic in the context of Minervini’s fly-on-the-wall approach.
The other substantial thread follows meetings, protests and food drives for the homeless organized by The New Black Panther Party for Self Defense, led by national chair Krystal Muhammad. The storied radical group has become a resurgent force in the wake of the killings of black youths by cops in recent years and of barbaric murders in Mississippi that recall all too clearly the ugly history of the KKK. They go door to door to investigate crimes against community members, and face down law enforcement outside the Mississippi State Capitol in Jackson, hurling accusations of complicity at a black cop. This is heated material, driven by a wave of senseless deaths that have left the country wounded and angry. But despite the undeniable power of hearing call-and-response protest chants addressing racism, corruption and indifference, the Black Panther sections feel poorly integrated into the film and jarringly out of sync with the texture elsewhere.
The same goes for the underdeveloped fourth strand, the Mardi Gras Indians, a Southern Louisiana tradition among African-Americans that dates back to the mid-19th century. While this allows for musical interludes and footage showing the considerable hours of work put in on the elaborate ceremonial costumes, Minervini’s avoidance of interview components, spoken commentary or even onscreen text means the complicated history of black participation in New Orleans’ official city parades goes unexplained.
This is in many ways a frustrating film, its commitment admirable but its execution chaotic. The feeling arises that Minervini and his regular editor Marie-Helene Dozo found it difficult to balance the four interwoven areas of focus and would have been better off narrowing their range. As it stands, at its current excessive length, the film makes urgent points worth making and gives us a glimpse into marginalized lives that demand visibility. But those positives are muddied by a baggy structure that becomes repetitive and shapeless.
Cast: Judy Hill, Dorothy Hill, Michel Nelson, Ronaldo King, Titus Turner, Ashlei King, Kevin Goodman, The New Black Panther Party for Self Defense
Production companies: Okta Film, Pulpa Film, RAI Cinema, Shellac Sud
Director: Roberto Minervini
Producers: Paolo Benzi, Denise Ping Lee, Roberto Minervini
Director of photography: Diego Romero Suarez-Llanos
Editor: Marie-Helene Dozo
Sales: The Match Factory
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
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