“Black and white is abstract; color is not,” photographer Joel Sternfeld told Art in America in 2012. “Looking at a black and white photograph, you are already looking at a strange world.” Perhaps this insight inspired director Roberto Minervini to make What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, which depicts the “strange world” of the American South in high-contrast black and white.
The film owes much to cinematographer Diego Romero Suarez-Llanos, whose grayscale camerawork is simply stunning; he shoots with an attentive eye and a delicate touch. The choice to shoot in black and white is intriguing, as it lends timelessness and grandeur to the film’s topical and intimate moments. However, that grayscale beauty can also undercut the film’s urgency and flatten some of its most vibrant subjects.
Minervini braids together four stories of Black life in the South, each told with care and compassion. Of those stories, one stands out in particular: that of young half-brothers Ronaldo and Titus. The first time we meet them, they are making their way through a carnival funhouse. Nine-year-old Titus is crying out in fear.
“Come on!” 14-year-old Ronaldo insists. “Let’s go!”
“I don’t want to do this,” Titus moans.
“Come on, I gotcha,” Ronaldo replies. “I gotcha.”
Titus finally breaks down into tears; Ronaldo wraps his arm around Titus, hugging him to his chest.
The metaphor here is difficult to miss. This sequence also draws attention to Minervini’s unique docu-narrative style, which makes it unclear how much his subjects are performing for the camera. Titus and Ronaldo share many moments like this — part-heartwarming, part-heartrending — that make us wonder how authentic the scenes are that Minervini captures. As a result, What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? feels more like a work of creative nonfiction than strict documentary.
That said, the question of authenticity does little to undermine the emotional power of Titus and Ronaldo’s story, as well as the three other narrative threads that run throughout the film. What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? also follows charismatic community leader and bar-owner Judy Hill. Then there’s the New Black Panther Party for Self Defense led by the compelling Krystal Muhammad, and finally the Mardi Gras Indians, whose roots in Southern Louisiana date back to the mid-1800s.
Titus, Ronaldo, and Judy’s stories are deeply moving and most revealing of everyday life in the South for Black Americans. Titus and Ronaldo share a brotherly bond that was made to be captured on film. Their conversations with each other and their mother ponder the ways race shapes the choices we make and the people we become. Judy exudes a natural magnetism and heart-wrenching history that makes her a perfect documentary subject. Her sermon-esque speeches and unconditional support for her community can’t help but affect you. All three figures have stayed with me long past the movie’s end.
The thread following the New Black Panther Party feels a bit hamfistedly integrated into the film. Through interviews and footage from the party’s meetings, demonstrations, and acts of community service, Minervini captures the group admirably but is unable to organically weave the storyline with the other three. These Black Panther sections, especially those with Krystal as their focus, truly deserve their own documentary — one with higher energy, clearer focus, and a more activist-minded message.
The same could be said for the portions of the film devoted to the Mardi Gras Indians, who remain something of an enigma without any one-on-one interviews. They are captured with gorgeous visuals and excellent sound design, but the historical and cultural meaning of their celebrations are lost without further interrogation. Black and white is abstract, yes — but some clarity would have been helpful in this particular narrative strand.
The best way to approach What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? is as a beautiful work of ethnography. The film is a well-painted (though not necessarily fully fleshed out) image of a people and a culture that has been systematically marginalized. Minervini considers extensively the dichotomy of private and public life — private and public ceremony, private and public grief, private and public fear. His depictions of daily rituals are just beautiful. His directorial eye is objective — sometimes to a fault — but always tender. Ethnography is a field of study; here, Minervini has turned it into an art form.
Looking at a black and white photograph, you are already looking at a strange world. The “strange world” of the American South is a world blighted by slavery and crushed under white supremacy. “We was fuckin’ doomed a long time ago as black people,” Judy tells a small congregation; she addresses the historical roots of inequality more clearly than Minervini can. With his lens so focused on the present, Minervini passes up opportunities to address the root causes of the unjust socioeconomic circumstances that he captures. While Minervini isn’t obligated to turn his gaze from ethnography to history, in times as politically dire as these, it is worth asking — who is this film meant for?
What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? certainly has a political bend — Hill’s impassioned speeches and the Black Panther Party’s empowering rhetoric offer fiery political points of view — but it never truly digs into taking a stand. The film’s promotional language describes it as “a meditation on the state of race in America” and orients the film in the aftermath of a “string of brutal killings of young African-American men sent shockwaves throughout the country,” yet Minervini’s lack of narrative focus doesn’t always capture these realities.
Despite these frustrations, I find myself coming back to the people, the powerful central figures that anchor the film: Titus and Ronaldo and Judy and Krystal. They each generate enough energy to propel the film forward; they each deserve their own film. They are reason enough to see What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, if only because they hold some of the answers to that titular question.