London Film Festival 2018: First Look Review – What You Gonna Do When The World’s On Fire?

“You got a couple more years to fight14 year old Ronaldo tells his 9 year old half brother Titus, after spending some time teaching him to punch. He wants his younger sibling to know how to fight because, he says, nobody’s going to draw on a 9 year old. It’s just one of many sobering moments in Roberto Minervini’s beautiful and evocative portrait of a black community in Louisiana in the wake of the death of Alton Sterling and several incidents of racist violence.

In some ways, Minervini keeps his focus narrow, other than the boys and their concerned mother the characters we spend significant time with here are members of the New Black Panther Party, bar owner Judy and her ex-con cousin Michael. On the other hand, we get the feeling that theirs are stories that are reflected behind many of the doors in the neighbourhood. Mom is trying to keep her kids from getting in trouble and keep them safe. The kids are playing, trying to just be kids. Judy’s trying to find the money to keep her bar open and help Michael and her own elderly mother as best she can. The Black Panthers are doing the activism we’re used to seeing in the news, marching and chanting, but they’re also doing things we see less of, like handing out drinks and sandwiches to the homeless.

Minervini shoots all of this in crisp, beautiful, black and white. The images are full of detail, getting close up on people and their emotions but also seeming unobtrusive and allowing us to feel that nobody is playing up to the camera. This is something of a departure from Minervini’s previous film, the stunning and underseen Stop the Pounding Heart which, while entirely naturalistic, recognisably occupies a strange limbo between documentary and fiction. This is a much more purely observational film, the interactions between Titus and Ronaldo are especially beguiling; snatched moments of innocence as the world threatens to encroach (something we see powerfully when Ronaldo and his mother talk about his father, who first went to jail when he was younger than his son is here). Everyone has powerful moments though. Judy performing with her band. Judy comforting a crack addict as, behind her, Michael smokes a pipe. The Panthers bagging up sandwiches and handing them out. Michael visiting his mother’s grave, which he didn’t know the location of because he was in prison when she died. All these moments and so many more hit right at our hearts.

While What You Gonna Do When The World’s On Fire? is powerful as a film of the moment, you never feel that Minervini imposes politics on it, he lets its characters and their lives speak, and they speak loud and powerfully.

Leave a Reply