What You Gonna Do When the World's on Fire?




An observational documentary that invites viewers to share the lives of black people in the American South.

What You're Gonna Do When the World's on Fire? 


Many critics were more receptive than I was when reviewing both 2018's Hale County This Morning, This Evening and the recent Honeyland. Each of these documentaries eschewed any commentary and thus lost the benefit of voice-over information that can be so useful to the viewer in addition to helping to give shape to the work being watched. The same approach is taken by Roberto Minervini in his film What You Gonna Do When the World's on Fire? and once again I feel the resultant lack. However, this time around we have the advantage of a film featuring four leading figures whose presence is such that the audience readily become involved.


Like RaMell Ross's Hale County film, Minervini's aim is simply to make us share the lives of black people living in America and to do so not by telling some unique story about them but by showing us how their race affects their daily lives. With this in mind, he puts screen centre Judy Hill, a strong woman living with her aged mother and, now that her marriage has ended, running a bar. Then we have two brothers Ronaldo and Titus who are fourteen and nine respectively and whose bond is engaging while their mother is on hand with good advice being fully alert to dangers on the streets. These are the figures with whom we easily identify but the film also contains two other threads. The work of the New Black Panther Party is a constant feature in the background here. Fairly or quite possibly unfairly, some people accuse the Party of being anti-Semitic, but this film ignores those claims and is very much on the side of the Party. It includes much footage of its forceful national chairwoman Krystal Muhammad. Thus we see the Party helping the homeless and the whole film speaks of the need for black people to challenge a society that continues to see them as second-class citizens. As for the remaining thread - the weakest in the film because it is not sufficiently detailed to amount to much - it is concerned with the Mardi Gras Indians of New Orleans.


Apparently filmed in the summer of 2017, that fact is not stated just as the absence of any commentary means that only indirectly do we come to realise that the precise location is in and around New Orleans. More than anything else, it is the impact of Judy Hill and the two youngsters which holds the film together as it moves on from one scene to the next with limited development (it is Judy's personal situation that undergoes changes and thus brings a certain drama into play). But as a general portrait, it is well done and it gains much from the exceptionally fine black and white photography from Diego Romero Suárez-Llanos.




Featuring  Judy Hill, Dorothy Hill, Michael Nelson, Ronaldo King, Titus Turner, Ashiel King, Krystal Muhammad, Alton Sterling, Kevin Goodman.


Dir Roberto Minervini, Pro Paolo Benzi, Denise Ping Lee and Roberto Minervini, Screenplay Roberto Minervini, Ph Diego Romero Suárez-Llanos, Ed Marie-Hélène Dozo.


Okta Film/Pulpa Film/Rai Cinema/Shellac Sud-ICA Cinema Distribution.
109 mins. Italy/USA/France. 2018. Rel: 18 October 2019. No Cert.