Four Glimpses of Hope in a World of ‘Fire’

The stories of individuals such as Judy Hill uplift the Roberto Minervini documentary “What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?” (Photo: Kim Stim)

Italian director Roberto Minervini’s powerful and deeply moving documentary “What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?” is a searing examination of racism that will open the Fresno Filmworks 2019-20 season on September 13.

Shot in black and white in 2017, it weaves together four stories that reflect the effects of racism in the South. At the center of the film is 50-year-old Judy Hill, whose neighborhood bar is also a meeting place for community members. Hill has been a victim of sexual abuse and drug addiction, but her unrelenting passion for her community and her determination to keep her bar open is testimony to her resilience.

Fourteen-year-old Ronaldo King and his half-brother, Titus Turner, roam the streets of New Orleans on their bikes. They seem unaware of the cameras following them as they share their youthful reflections on life in a neighborhood where violence is the norm. The dynamic between the frightened Titus and the protective Ronaldo is touching, but also reflective of the current climate for many black children.

The third segment focuses on the activism of the local New Black Panther Party for Self Defense. They work tirelessly to organize rallies and to raise awareness of recent killings in Louisiana and Mississippi. It is an important thread in the story, but perhaps would be even better suited to its own documentary.

The final story focuses on the preparations for a Mardi Gras parade, as intricate and beautiful Native American costumes are painstakingly crafted. It was local Native Americans who protected escaped slaves; today, their music and dance reflect their desire to reassert their claim to their land.

This is not Minervini’s first film about the disenfranchised and marginalized in America. His 2015 doc “The Other Side” examined a Louisiana community struggling to retain its humanity and place in the world. Minervini, who has lived in Texas for the past 11 years, said in an interview with Daniel Kasman for Mubi, “The South contains stories, a hotbed for stories, they’re so raw and unfiltered, and I’m drawn to that. I’m drawn to that because I’m scared. … I’m terrified of living there. … My relationship with the South has been one of fear and love at the same time.”

While “What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?” is woven around four segments, its core is the two that focus on personal stories. Judy Hill is the star of the film. Her charismatic screen presence energizes the film, rallying viewers to cheer her on. The film’s strength lies in its depiction of Hill and the two young brothers, but its timely narrative is an important reminder of the turmoil that plagues our nation.

As in many Black communities in our country, the battle against racism, violence and drugs continues, but it is in the intimate, quiet, and vivid stories of individuals committed to change that the viewer finds hope.

A retired high school English teacher, Cindy Peters Duzi serves on the Filmworks board as venue director. She blogs about current cinema on her Instagram.