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‘What You Gonna Do’ Review: Struggles and Resilience in New Orleans


In “The Other Side,” the Italian-born filmmaker Roberto Minervini, who makes movies that exist on the edge of the documentary genre, presented an alarming portrait of life on the margins of Louisiana. He embedded with drug addicts and anti-government extremists who seemed to exist apart from society at large, perhaps oblivious even to the camera’s presence.

Viewed one way, “What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?” is a companion piece. Filmed largely in New Orleans in 2017 — with brief detours to Baton Rouge and Jackson, Miss. — it offers an urban-Louisiana counterpart to the rural setting of “The Other Side.” Its subjects are African-American, unlike the men and women of “The Other Side,” who were white.

The individuals we meet in “What You Gonna Do” experience a different form of marginalization. There is Ronaldo, a teenager who educates Titus, his half brother, about race, and how to defend himself if he needs to. (“Nowadays people don’t fight,” he says. “They like to shoot.”) Their mother wants Ronaldo to be a role model to his younger sibling but worries that he might go astray and won’t graduate from school.

Judy Hill, a bar owner, has overcome one set of obstacles — and drug use — only to encounter others. Having opened her bar in Treme with “pennies,” she struggles to hold on to it as the neighborhood is rocked by gentrification. At gatherings there, we hear frank discussions about the state of race, poverty and violence in the South.

Then there is the New Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, credited as a group, although its chairwoman, Krystal Muhammad, emerges with special force. (The meeting scene in which she discusses the difference between restitution and reparations is worthy of Frederick Wiseman.) Members of the group visit Jackson and go door to door to check in with residents after an African-American man is found decapitated, in what is presumed by the film’s subjects to be a racially motivated killing. Elsewhere in the film, they protest the fatal shooting of Alton Sterling by a police officer.

And mainly at the beginning and end, Kevin Goodman, a chief with the Mardi Gras Indians — a group that has traditionally symbolized solidarity among blacks and Native Americans in the face of oppression — is seen preparing for and participating in celebrations.

The movie unfolds impressionistically. To call it a portrait of collective resilience is accurate, but that description shortchanges its richness on both human and historical scales. Filming in black-and-white, Minervini finds poetry in silhouettes, the city’s musical rhythms and small moments of generosity.

He shoots the movie in a vérité style, without talking head interviews or informational asides. The takeaway seems to be that although the people in the film may have been let down by institutions, from educators to the police, they draw strength from one another.

What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?

Not rated. Running time: 2 hours 3 minutes.


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