New York 2018

Two Other Americas

Roberto Minervini’s What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? (2018)

Following their premieres in Venice and Toronto, two films that focus on communities at the center of the American political conversation are screening at the New York Film Festival. Roberto Minervini’s What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? focuses on African-Americans in the Deep South, while Frederick Wiseman heads out to Trump Country in Monrovia, Indiana. Both films are now garnering much stronger reviews than they did earlier in the fall.

Minervini, an Italian based in Texas whose work will be celebrated at the Viennale next month, immerses himself in his subjects’ milieu, often shooting over a hundred hours of footage before he begins editing. What You Gonna Do, shot in stark black and white, follows four strands. With their father in jail, a teenager tries to be a role model for his younger brother. A Mardi Gras performer fights for the preservation of local traditions. The Black Panthers respond to a fresh wave of racist violence. And a woman named Judy Hill struggles to save her bar, a community hub, from circling speculators. “In the past I have found the access Minervini gains from his subjects unnerving and possibly untoward,” writes Nellie Killian for Film Comment, “but in Hill he’s found a true collaborator with the self-possession to be an endlessly dynamic transformative force.”

At the Film Stage, Ethan Vestby echoes some of the criticism of What You Gonna Do voiced in early reviews when he argues that “it’s not that the subjects aren’t themselves compelling, it’s just that there’s a lack of shape to the film.” Arguments along these lines have sparked a “fast and loose” response from Cinema Scope editor Mark Peranson. “It’s character that matters here, fleeting moments rather than overarching drama,” he writes. “Minervini does not attempt to solve the problems of police brutality, inequality, poverty, social injustice, etc., because he’s a filmmaker, not a politician . . . And as a lowly filmmaker, we should also not expect him to solve the problems inherent in fictionalizing reality, but boy, does he give it a shot.”

Writing for the Notebook, Michael Sicinski points out that Minervini “emphasizes difference and individuality while at the same time demonstrating that there are certain unavoidable commonalities that characterize the black experience.” In short: “This is a film that we need.” Notebook editor Daniel Kasman adds that What You Gonna Do insists “not upon its own importance, but rather upon its necessity of being.”

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