Every word they spoke, I ate it with a spoon,” says Judy of her elders in What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?. Judy, the owner of a struggling bar, is one of many faces and personalities that populate the screen in Roberto Minervini’s film, which takes place in New Orleans. It fluctuates between moments in her life and those of young Ronaldo and Titus, beating back boredom in the summer months; New Black Panther Party members strategizing amid the extrajudicial killings of Black people (namely, Alton Sterling, who was murdered in Baton Rouge); and Chief Kevin, a Mardi Gras Indian.
So often in the midst of encountering violence or financial uncertainties, we look to our elders. My favorite scenes in the movie are those of communal connection: Ronaldo and Titus observing attentively as Kevin tries to fix their bike, Judy cooking gumbo with her grandmother, Black Panthers knocking on doors looking for answers about deaths. Minervini’s use of black-and-white photography befits these contexts, casting wrinkles and beads of sweat or tears in sharp focus. The film teems with beauty.
What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? is at its best an archival document of a group of people at a particular time in their lives, rather than a launchpad to start a conversation about race. Minervini shows what Black people have always done when the world is on fire: live, organize, protect one another, and keep our history at the forefront.