BLACK AMERICA: Robert Minervini’s new documentary examines a community of disenfranchised people in New Orleans and their struggle for survival in a country that seems to have forsaken them.

Jo-Anne Velin
Jo-Anne Velin
Jo-Anne Velin is a Canadian journalist & film director living in Europe, creating long-form documentary films with a very special focus on authentic sound.
Published date: April 4, 2019

Just let the black and white cinematography and unobtrusive sound design grow, let the characters gradually reveal themselves; give yourself time to think and wonder because you can feel the cameraman’s own attention is unhurried and sharp. The editor is generous: it takes time before you’re sure you’re in New Orleans, time before someone’s name is spoken, and time before you feel this film may be a way to frame fear and anger without becoming, in itself, an angry film.

What You Gonna Do When the World’s On Fire? was shot in 2017. Trump had just come into office, and for a while nothing focused hearts and minds in some communities like the numbers of African American men shot and killed by police. This film does not try to recreate that rage. Instead, it shows us the ways in which the fresh murders call up a fear that reaches back two centuries, and how awareness is not enough to overcome repression, let alone heal the pain people carry around inside themselves for a lifetime. «No justice, no peace!»

What is a true documentary?

How true to life is what we experience here? Minervini has shot his best-known films in different parts of the American south, in communities that are marginalised by poverty and that are way out in the countryside. Stop the Pounding Heart immersed us in a family of fundamentalist white Christians in Texas. It won awards, but was also talked about because it was thought that the romantic relationship between two young people was engineered for the sake of the film. What can documentary be allowed to be before it’s pushed into fiction (and a completely different funding, festival and competition stream)? The problem could be with the semantics not the film itself, and with managing audience expectation. Is this what should be happening with Minervini’s latest film too?

Most of the time the camera is locked onto the faces of people who are ready to let us in.

What You Gonna Do …? feels authentically anchored in the reality it wants to share with us. It samples different ways people who are part of the poorest African American communities in New Orleans resist white power. We are feeling them breathe. Most of the time the camera is locked onto the faces of a handful of people who are ready to let us in.

Community protection

The leading personalities in the film are all women, for example Judy who is trying to save the bar she rents; two young half-brothers are the exception. The space that Minervini gives the women and children is uncluttered, scattered with older men who are an undefined part of their lives – they are seen helping fix the bar or repairing a bike or embroidering a Mardi Gras costume, one man singing the soft refrain «sew, sew, sew,» as the needle in his fingers gets pulled through the cloth.

What You Gonna Do When the World’s On Fire? Director: Roberto Minervini

A support group, in Judy’s trust, shares pain and fear: the trauma is in their DNA Judy says. It’s the history of white colonialism says another. These days black men being killed by police or by suspected KKK militants catalyses new outrage. The New Black Panther Party for Self-Defence uses an oath of allegiance and self-discipline to attract new recruits. They organise because the risk is real, and when a black man’s head is left on a porch, no one believes this is black on black violence. The Panthers visit the neighbours living next to where it happened to offer protection. Two or three Panthers with military rifles keep watch on the edge of the lawn.

Awareness is not enough to overcome repression.

The Ku Klux Klan has been spray-painting cars, walls. The police are not trusted. If you know Minervini’s The Other Side, the white paramilitaries training in the backwoods of Louisiana, What You Gonna Do …? is its complement. Together it’s like Minervini is showing how war could be waged by the poor and powerless against one another, lines drawn solely along racial differences.

Be home before the streetlights go on

Long scenes inside homes or between friends include the two half-brothers; the oldest one, 14, teaches the youngest, about 10, how to face fear and defend himself. We first meet them in a house of horrors, the little boy doesn’t want to go further but the older one pushes him on. «I got you!» he says. «Nowadays, people don’t fight, they like to shoot,» says the oldest, and he means a gun, not a camera: learning to throw a punch can still work if you’re 10, but it’s not enough at 14.

When a black man’s head is left on a porch, no one believes this is black on black violence.

They wander over the train tracks together, play in industrial fields and walk home down the deserted street just around the block from where people were shot a few days ago. Their mother implores them not to wander down the wrong path: she gets them to repeat, over and over, to be home before the streetlights go on.

No matter how beautiful the cinematography or how much research and presence the director invested, I am curious to know how much the subjects of the film were shepherded, how much was their own idea, their own chosen gesture. Some of the dialogue can sound a lot like the people are speaking for the camera instead of only to one another – the fly-on-the-wall artifice is micro-thin. But as a finished film it recalls black and white photojournalism of the 50s, the sound is natural in spirit (some fine sound editing has been done that you won’t, and shouldn’t, notice), and it stays with you, character by character.


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Modern Times Review