Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Apr 02, 2020 10:35 pm 
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Three part black harmony

Roberto Minvervini is an oddball director from Italy who has explored the underside of documentary in filming poor southern American underclass elements. His Stop the Pounding Heart (ND/NF 2014), last in a trilogy, intimately covered bible-thumping Christians who live off the land and stage a marriage; the film was itself staged and takes on a propagandistic feel. Minervini's last film, The Other Side, was an "unsettling look" at "Louisiana down-and-outs" (Jay Wwissberg, Variety), drug addicts and anti-government extremists, both white. The more cumbersomely-titled new one counterbalances that and enters more sympathetic territory by depicting poor black people in New Orleans, with side trips to Baton Rouge and Mississippi.

What You Gonna Do When the World's on Fire has been very handsomely shot in black and white by dp Diego Romero Suarez-Llanos. This is surprising news because the work is so intimate, so close at some moments with two boys it seems invisible. One wonders if it was Suarez-Llanos alone who achieved the trust and clung seamlessly by, not Minervini. The images are velvety, catching the lush darkness of the boys' skin. (The miking also is very good at intimate moments).

And yet the effect of the whole is "curiously underwhelming," as Weissberg says in his Variety review. This must be partly due to how the film is edited, greedily undercutting each of three segments to feed the whole: the two boys, one mentoring the other; a fiftyish female survivor of sexual abuse and drugs who must give up the bar in Treme she's started with "pennies," supposedly felled by "gentrification"; and a small ragged posse of New Black Panther Party members having a doctrinal meeting, helping the homeless with food, and demonstrating against several murders of black men, one a police shooting, two vicious apparent race crimes, in Baton Rouge and in Mississippi as well as New Orleans. (There is a fourth, minor, strand of preparing for the Mardi Gras Indians that's just a low murmur.)

The scenes of fourteen-year-old Ronaldo King and his half brother, nine-year-old Ritus King, are the best part, so natural and unselfconscious they're magical. At first we see their mother Ashley King drilling the boys on the need to come in from play when the street lights come on because, she repeats, five kids just died round the corner in gun violence - nearby victims of stray bullets. This sounds the opening note of African American fear, a theme, Weissberg notes, that "rarely gets the kind of attention it's given here." Most tellingly, Ronaldo teaches Titus to "fight", with makeshift boxing gloves, but adds, "You don't always fight. 'Cause nowadays people like to shoot."

But not people his age though, he goes on. Nobody nine is going to carry a gun. "People my age." So at fourteen, be prepared to shoot. That is alarming, especially expressed in the gentle, soft-spoken dialogue between the two boys, neither of whom shows any signs of hardness. Ronaldo also later tells his mother he's "afraid" to "do crimes," and "not afraid," just unwilling, to do drugs. Best, though, is a moment of Ronaldo and Titus tossing stones (the precise sound again) and sitting on the track, waiting for the train to come. The cinematography of the boys is so beautiful, with the velvety darks of their skin, we remember the moment when Ronaldo teaches Titus the difference between "color" and "race" and explains to him that black people aren't always black but he needs to know which is which.

The scenes of Judy King, the abused and fifty-year-old but charismatic and shapely woman soon to be faced with giving up her bar, are more colorful, though a little less real. She's obviously a showoff for the camera. It works, but isn't as touching as the moments between the two boys. We see her lecturing groups, including the Panthers. When she speaks, we listen. Her lines, laced with F-words, may not be well-turned, but they seem so by dint of strong delivery. In a memorable sequence, Judy takes her gray-haired cousin Michael Nelson to the cemetery to visit his mother's grave after learning that due to his lengthy periods of incarceration he wasn't around for her funeral, can't remember when she died, and can't even say where she's buried. Brought to the spot, he weeps - and she seizes the moment to lecture him, telling him he needs to amount to something, and that his weeping shows he still has the heart to do so. Even more memorably, she talks to two crack whores, telling them shes's been there, urging one to do a J or smoke a crack pipe or shoot up for her, do whatever she needs to do to feel better. Earlier, she has told Michael that she remains illiterate because in school she was too afraid of getting beaten up every day after school to take in the lessons in class.

The segments of the New Black Panther Party are the "weakest element," as Weissberg says. But they fill in the wider context of fear referenced personally by Judy's beatings and Titus's lesson about fists and guns. The chubby, light-skinned, surprisingly foul-mouthed national chairwoman Krystal Muhammad organizes the Panter's black power demonstrations focused on a variety of killings, mainly Alton Sterling, shot by white police in Baton Rouge a year earlier, and horrible Ku Klux Klan-style murders in Mississippi of two men, Phillip Carroll, and Jeremy Jackson, the latter decapitated, his body burned.

In some scenes, like the one when Krystal confronts a cop in front of a Mississippi police station, the contrast with the original Black Panther Party is blunt. Gone are the literacy and eloquence, the pride, the sense of image of a time when the best young black men of their generation where here. Krystal's vulgar, abusive language shows little sense of image or of self respect. The Sixties are long-gone. But nonetheless the centuries of racism are strongly evoked.

In his Slant review, Chuck Bowen says we don't feel we've "slipped effortlessly" into the lives of "Minervini's subjects" as we're meant to because he doesn't devote enough time to "pivotal moments," later acknowledging he's "more interested in mood than process or character." It's hard to explain what Minervini's doing. He does slip seamlessly, even if his portraits are not complete because he's seduced not only by the beauty - sometimes as with the boys especially purely visual - of moments, but a collective portrait of southern blackness and poverty that's strong, even if, of individual lives, it's only a hint.

What You Gonna Do When the World's on Fire?, 123 mins., debuted at Venice 2019, showing at 18 other international festivals, including Toronto, New York and London. Metascore 68%. but A New York Times "Critic’s Pick". Release on digital and on-demand Apr. 7, 2020.

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