Following his unsettling look at Louisiana down-and-outs in “The Other Side,” Roberto Minervini tackles an easier topic to get audiences behind: a community of African-Americans in New Orleans whose stories reflect the toxic effects of centuries-old racism. “What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?” is a natural direction for the Italian-born director to go considering his interest in exploring the flip-side of the American dream, and yet, despite charismatic subjects, the film seems so concerned with its handsome black-and-white aesthetics that it never feels angry enough. Given the state of race relations in the Trump years, any film drawing attention to the country’s obscene disparity is welcome, and Minervini’s underlying theme of fear — the fear instilled in African-Americans from the cradle — rarely gets the kind of attention it’s given here. Alas, the sum is curiously underwhelming, though the lack of similar fare at the present time means the film will get considerable attention.
Minervini edits together three separate main strands and a minor fourth, the Mardi Gras Indians, whose occasional appearances preparing and marching for the parade testify to long traditions of celebrating the community’s resilience. Judy Hill is the film’s clearest subject, a 50-year-old woman of outspoken passion whose troubled background as a victim of sexual abuse and drug addiction has sharpened her understanding of the cruel legacy of discrimination. Having kicked the habit and realized her dream of owning a bar where people socialize and gather to express community concerns, she’s now on the brink of losing the establishment.
Judy’s energy lifts up the film every time she appears, but it’s the half-brothers Ronaldo King, 14, and Titus Turner, 9, who get under the skin. Perhaps it’s their youth, the sense of a lifetime of hopes and hardships ahead, but just as much, it’s their fraternal bond and Ronaldo’s protective attitude. The two are first seen at a fun house that makes Titus frightened; next they’re with their mother Ashlei King who repeats over and over again that they need to be back in the house in the early evening, just before the streetlights come on. Her concerns are understandable given frequent neighborhood shootings, but it also furthers the degree of anxiety under which many African-Americans live from the moment they step outside. Titus’ general nervousness is more than a personal characteristic, it’s a manifestation of the fear instilled from within the community because of the constant violence coming from without.
Looking to combat that is the New Black Panther Party for Self Defense, whose national chairwoman Krystal Muhammad organizes black-power rallies and protests to raise awareness of recent killings not just in Louisiana, where Alton Sterling was shot dead by a cop in Baton Rouge the year before, but also in neighboring Mississippi, where the gruesome deaths of Jeremy Jackson and Phillip Carroll recall KKK lynchings. Notwithstanding Muhammad’s ceaseless energy and calls for empowerment, the Black Panther scenes are the film’s weakest element. They feel too scattered, too impersonal when juxtaposed with Judy, Ronaldo, and Titus, and despite the group’s impassioned activities, they’re filmed in a way that makes them seem almost puny, like a gadfly seeking to bother a herd of mammoths.
Organically working in a little more background information would also add context and increase the documentary’s punch. Judy’s elderly mother Dorothy Hill speaks of what a good life she’s had, yet her daughter was sexually abused from childhood so it’s natural to wonder about what sort of mother-daughter issues Judy must feel. In addition, the reasons why Judy loses the bar remain unclear, though press notes talk about gentrification (a word mentioned a few times, though its impact isn’t explored). With a compelling figure like Judy, it’s inevitable that powerful moments exist, such as a scene in which she talks to her cousin Michael Nelson about how the fear of being beaten up at school every afternoon hindered her ability to learn. Nelson’s own story of childhood abuse and lengthy incarceration is a troubling and all-too-common tale from innumerable African-American communities who’ve never been allowed onto a level playing field with white America.
Despite such confessional moments, there’s something about “What You Gonna Do” that falls short of making the damning statements the country needs, especially now, and comparisons with more potent documentaries like the magisterial “When the Levees Broke” don’t help. Perhaps part of the problem lies in wanting the film to be something it doesn’t aim for: Minervini doesn’t appear to be looking to make viewers into activists, and few will take to the streets to protest inequality after watching his movie. That doesn’t lessen the film’s balance issues, though it does acknowledge that almost anything that explores racial inequality is wanted at this moment. Visually the film channels some of the finest currents in black-and-white photo reportage, with cinematographer Diego Romero Suarez-Llanos crafting the kind of compositions found more in fiction features than documentaries. While always attractive, the look conveys a level of non-spontaneous construction that often takes away from the potency of hard, brutal reality.