Race in the Post-Obama Era:An Interview With Roberto Minervini (Web Exclusive)
by Richard Porton

Portrait of Roberto Minervini.

In the late 1940s, the Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal claimed that race is a “problem” for Americans because of the chasm between this country’s lofty ideals and its shabby treatment of its black citizens. While the idealistic Myrdal assumed that the American “civic religion” exemplified by Constitutional values would vanquish racism, race hatred, seventy years after Myrdal published An American Dilemma, remains as persistent as ever.

At a time when the American president is stoking the fires of racial animosity, Robert Minervini’s most recent documentary (a genre Minervini nevertheless regards with a certain amount of distaste), What You Gonna Do When The World’s On Fire?, shines a glaring spotlight on this age-old American dilemma. Shot in New Orleans and envirions during the summer of 2017, Minervini’s hybrid documentary examines the open wound of American racism by focusing on several mininarratives involving the black community.

The four strands of What You Gonna Do…? explore disparate aspects of coping with racism in the Deep South. Two mischievous kids, half-brothers Ronaldo King, who is fourteen, and nine-year-old Titus Turner wander around the city despite their mother’s warnings about the travails of being black in a white society. Captured in beautiful high contrast black and white, their hijinks sometimes recall the poetic vignettes of Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1978). As counterpoint, Minervini lingers on the saga of Judy Hill, a woman who has overcome the ravages of substance abuse and fulfills her dream of opening a neighborhood bar—only to have that dream thwarted by the time the film ends.

In yet another register, the film intersperses these personal stories with sequences recounting the New Black Panther Party for Self Defense’s campaign against racist murders and police violence in Louisiana and Mississippi. The central figure in this tributary is Krystal Muhammad, a woman who eloquently voices outrage at suspicious deaths of black men (the decapitation of Jeremy Jackson and the possible lynching of Phillip Carroll that the authorities labeled a suicide) in Mississippi, as well as the police execution of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge.

Finally, this militant strand is accompanied by an elegiac tribute to Chief Kevin Goodman (also featured in Irish filmmaker Moira Tierney’s Down Claiborne [2018]), a “Mardi Gras Indian,” whose elaborate costumes have won him local acclaim.

Judy Hill, the central “character” in What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?.

The critical response to the initial festival screenings of What You Gonna Do..? (it premiered at Venice in fall 2018 and has also screened at, among other venues, the Toronto International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival) has proved surprisingly mixed and, for the most part, oddly myopic. In Variety, Jay Weissberg termed the film “underwhelming” and complained that it didn’t seem “angry enough.” IndieWire called it a “missed opportunity” while failing to illustrate precisely which opportunities were missed. 

Perhaps part of these critics’ befuddlement stems from Minervini’s refusal to confine himself to one nonfictional subgenre. What You Gonna Do...? occasionally resembles an observational documentary while, at other times, it veers into a style more reminiscent of neorealist narrative cinema. The film can’t be glibly pigeonholed. It’s possible that Minervini’s The Other Side (2015), an uncompromising portrait of a disgruntled Louisiana drug dealer that culminated in a shocking focus on a racist paramilitary group, conditioned critics to expect a less meditative movie.  

Cineaste interviewed Minervini by phone in June. Despite an unreliable cell phone connection, he spoke passionately about his filmmaking process, his status as an outsider in the United States, and his affection for his subjects, who he tends to refer to as “characters.”— Richard Porton

Cineaste: You’re known as a filmmaker who immerses himself in the lives of your subjects. You’re not one of those documentarians who flies into town to shoot a documentary in a week. You spend time achieving some trust with your subjects.  

Roberto Minervini: Absolutely. My approach to cinema comes from a personal need and getting to know people is part of this personal need.

Cineaste: In other words, this personal need stems from an urge to get close to people, not a philosophy of filmmaking?

Minervini: Exactly. This is a political project that enables me to understand America, the country I’m living in. But it first comes from a personal need. I would never consider a project that entailed just flying into a city and filming people for a week. That would seem too much like a job to me.

Cineaste: This approach differentiates your films from more journalistic documentaries. And there’s of course the question of whether your films should be considered documentaries at all. Your film Stop The Pounding Heart (2013), for example, was considered partially a documentary and partially an unscripted narrative.

Minervini: Yes, it’s hard for me to answer this question without seeming pedantic or using clichés. When I started out making films, I just thought it was inevitable that I’d end up inhabiting people’s lives and the spaces in which they live.

The aesthetic I’m interested in is much closer to fiction than documentary. I don’t feel that I’m part of the documentary tradition at all. I’m more interested in narrative and experimental cinema. I don’t have an affinity with documentaries. I would agree that my films combine both documentary and fictional elements—except I don’t look at documentary filmmaking as an inspiration. Telling the stories of people, as they are, is an inspiration.

Cineaste: In concrete terms then, how did you establish contact with the protagonists that inhabit the four strands of What You Gonna Do When The World’s On Fire?

Minervini: This was the first film that I approached from scratch; by that I mean without having prior knowledge of the people or the community. With all of the other films, there were interconnections or I knew a family or had a contact. This film was just sort of a jump into the void. I wanted to tell a story of black America and I thought I’d tell it from the perspective of the musical tradition. So I went to a bar in New Orleans where James Andrews, a trumpeter, performs on Wednesday. James is Judy Hill’s cousin. So I ended up meeting Judy.

I went to the bar for nearly a year before I considered making a movie with Judy. Through Judy, I got to meet the kids, whose uncle lived on the top floor of the bar. Then I got to know some people who are in some of the footage I shot, but not in the film. The one exception to working in this organic fashion was my contact with the members of the New Black Panther Party For Self-Defense. I approached them rather formally by sending them an email via their Website. 

The New Black Panther Party for Self-Defense protest police violence.

Cineaste: Last fall, a friend and I met Judy Hill at Lincoln Center after the screening at the New York Film Festival. We found her a very warm and engaging person. Was she essentially the catalyst for the film’s narrative drive? 

Minervini: Yes, about eight months after we met, I told her I wanted to make a film—and the starting point would be her. The film revolves around her and I think the film reflects her origin as the catalyst of the film. 

Cineaste: Right, she lends the film a sort of dramatic arc. It’s quite affecting when she has to give up her dream of running a bar. But you’ve described the film as a “conversation about race.” Was this your intention at the outset of the project, or did it gradually evolve in that direction?

Minervini: I had wanted to explore this subject for a long time. But, previously, I wasn’t prepared to tackle a subject of this magnitude for Americans—can I say “we Americans?” After The Other Side, I thought it was time to confront this in the wake of the end of the Obama era. America was obviously undergoing some sort of change. I felt it was time to dig deeper into a subject that’s only been superficially explored in films. I wanted to make a film about race not only from my perspective, but also from the perspective of these characters. 

Cineaste: Do you think being Italian might have been, oddly enough, an advantage?

Minervini: I live in the South and embrace its culture. But, at the same time, although I’m a naturalized American, it’s also true that I’m Italian and have a European perspective. I talk about this a lot and always bring that perspective to the table.

What’s interesting is that my family was experiencing the struggles for women’s rights, civil rights, and workers’ rights in Italy during the Seventies. Because of that, I’m quite politically and ideologically charged. This makes me different than other Americans and enables people to open up easily.

Cineaste: I read that you had a baby sitter who was in the Red Brigades.

Minervini: Yes, I was just talking about that with my mom today. When she was arrested, I lost my baby sitter! I remember her yelling and screaming at my brother when we were nine or ten years old and thinking: “She must be going through some issues.”[Laughs] I now understand the stress she was under.

Cineaste: When you were interviewed at the Rotterdam Film Festival, you talked about the “safety net of whiteness” you enjoyed when working with white subjects in Stop the Pounding Heart and The Other Side. How was the process different in What You Gonna do…? with a completely African-American roster of subjects?

Minervini: It was very different, especially the process of establishing trust. People had a lot of justifiable suspicions. But I was honest about being in completely black neighborhoods and feeling unsafe. I felt unsafe with them and they felt unsafe with me. To coexist and inhabit the same space, we at first had to establish demarcation lines so as not to step on each other. I abided by my original rule of being a facilitator, who could establish a safe space.

That was the starting point and it was like that for a long time with all of the participants—including the mother of the two boys, who I asked to participate about three months into the shoot. The biggest difference was that I stayed in the margins for a while as an outsider, in front of them but not next to them. I was reminded of the fact that I was different and, in some respects, represented a threat.

Cineaste: You represented “the other.”

Minervini: Yes, I was “the other” and represented the media. There was a lot for them to be afraid of. So, from the beginning, we had to have boundaries so we could establish trust.

Half brothers Ronaldo King, 14, and Titus Turner, 9, are the protagonists of one narrative strand in the hybrid documentary, What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?.

Cineaste: From a filmmaking perspective, how did you layer the various strands of the film? Did these involve creative decisions with your editor as you sifted through one hundred and fifty hours of footage?

Minervini: I knew from the get-go, and I discussed this with my editor, that I was continuing the process I started on The Other Side. I knew I was going to work on intertwined, parallel stories. I didn’t know which stories I was going to include. So I gathered a lot of them. Some of them fizzled, just because the trust or the mutual interest wasn’t there. During the film, it emerged which characters and stories were the most resilient. Those were the ones that made the cut.

I talked to my editor in the same way I’m taking to you now. I sent her the footage. I didn’t review it. I never review it because I don’t want to gain too much control of the stories. After all of these notes and emails I’ve exchanged with her, we usually meet about a month or so later. That’s when I review the footage for the first time. A lot of my approach is based on my feel for the stories.

Cineaste: Are you striving to achieve a certain rhythm?

Minervini: It’s very intuitive. I talk about the stories with my crew members and how they’re evolving. I share these ideas with Marie-Héléne [Dozo]. In terms of the rhythm, we work it out in the editing room.

I didn’t realize in advance how dialogue-heavy the film would be. There was no way around that. It was inherent to the shoot. Perhaps the editing process pertains to what we were talking about before. We were conscious of editing material that doesn’t belong to us, but belongs to the black community. I think we were very clean, transparent, and not at all manipulative during the editing process. During the shoot, it seemed as if it was going to end up being a dialogue-heavy, somewhat slow-paced film—and that’s how it did end up.

Cineaste: And as an adjunct of this process, I suppose the lens you were using that enabled you to get close to the characters established a real intimacy with them.

Minervini: Yeah, I’ve always used the 32mm lens. Diego [Romero Suarez-Llanos], my cinematographer and co-cameraman, is very energetic—and we’re friends. We talk about the fact that this closeness might feel scary at the beginning, but ultimately proves empowering. Not to mention that some of the audio has been used in legal cases by the New Black Panther Party. So shooting from a distance in this fashion has some value. We believe very strongly in our method. I feel my determination is reassuring to people. They know that I strongly believe in shooting a film in this way. Why do I go for this closeness? I tell them that this is the only way to build the intimacy that we’ve been striving to achieve for many months. In order to reveal their essence, I need to be close. And they get it.

Cineaste: Did you want to shoot the film in high contrast black and white because it yields beautiful images?

Minervini: Yeah, and that’s something I wanted from the beginning, because of the continuity with the imagery depicting the Civil Rights Movement during the Sixties. I wanted this kind of iconography; black and white was the tool to achieve this. All of the participants understood this and appreciated it.

Cineaste: There’s been a certain amount of controversy about the New Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, who are featured in your film, and the group that spawned them, the New Black Panther Party. Some of the original Panthers from the Sixties, such as Bobby Seale and Kathleen Cleaver, have denounced them. Is this something you were aware of while making the film—or perhaps it didn’t matter?

Minervini: To answer the last part of the question first, it didn’t matter because this was a film about voicing people’s anger and showing their resilience. Having said this, I was aware of this controversy. I talked to the members at length and did a lot of research.

The New Black Panthers always emphasize their connections with the Sixties Black Panthers.  

Another shot of the New Black Panther Party for Self-Defense.

Cineaste: The New Black Panthers use the same ten-point program.

Minervini: Exactly, and when Bobby Seale shut down the old Black Panthers, some claimed that the party belonged to the people and not to Seale and Newton. And when Seale shut down the party, he tried to become a mainstream politician and become the mayor of Oakland. That’s a very suspicious political move; the timing was not that great.  

There have also been schisms within the leadership of the New Black Panthers. Malik Zulu Shabazz didn’t want the leaders to be democratically elected. So there’s also a split between the New Black Panthers and the New Black Panther Party for Self-Defense since Krystal Muhammad, who appears in the film, is in favor of democratic elections and was elected democratically. It’s similar to schisms within the Civil Rights Movement of the Sixties.

I’ve seen the New Black Panther Party for Self-Defense operate in the community, and, like the old Black Panthers, they’re very effective in providing welfare.

Cineaste: Providing welfare and combating police violence.

Minervini: Absolutely.

Cineaste; That’s positive and they come off well in the film. But there have been reports that the New Black Panthers have expressed anti-Semitic as well as anti-gay sentiments. That’s disturbing.

Minervini: It definitely is. Malik Shabazz is the one who made anti-Semitic statements, just like Stokely Carmichael, of the original Black Panthers, did in 1969. Krystal Muhammad has vehemently denied that her group, the New Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, harbors either homophobic or anti-Semitic sentiments. They claim they’re strictly for the protection of their people. I know them and have no reason to disbelieve them. They claim their message is being distorted.

Cineaste: Yes, there are no expressions of homophobia or anti-Semitism in the film. I’m just asking for my own edification since reconciling certain press reports and the documentation of your film is slightly confusing. 

Minervini: It is. Krystal Muhammad insists that there be only one spokesperson. She maintains that otherwise things could be said that don’t represent the views of the party. They’re very adamant about only having just one spokesperson to prevent the wrong message from being disseminated.

Cineaste: To shift gears a bit…. In “Exiled in Trumpland,” your autobiographical piece in Cinema Scope, you write that, after living in the South for a while, Donald Trump’s election didn’t surprise you. Did shooting The Other Side prepare you for the results of the 2016 election?

Minervini: Yes, definitely. I knew, from living in the South, which gives you a front row seat to what’s going on in America, that there was this wave of hate towards institutions. And when I was filming The Other Side, people were constantly complaining about their sense of abandonment. You find this in urban areas of Texas, and even more so in rural parts of the South. So I knew because of the way the Electoral College determines elections (and I wrote an article in Italian about this) that Trump was going to win. Trump is not a new phenomenon.

Another shot of Titus and Ronaldo.

Cineaste: He’s a symptom, not a cause.

Minervini: Exactly. His populism was infused with “left-wing” messages of standing up for workers and attacking institutions. So I was pretty sure he would win.

Cineaste: How did you end up in Houston?

Minervini: My wife is from Houston. I knew the city, but I had previously lived in New York and then The Philippines. I thought I’d give Houston a try and I stayed thirteen years.

Cineaste: It took a while for What You Gonna Do…? to be picked up by a distributor. Now that it will be screening at Lincoln Center and other venues, what sort of dialogue are you hoping this film will provoke among American audiences?

Minervini: It’s an important time to release this film. We’re dealing with an administration that’s exacerbating some of the issues of our time; climate change, for example and, of course, race. We have to keep some sort of historical memory alive. Even when I travel with this film, I’m asked: “Why are we talking about this sort of thing when the situation for black people is so much better now?” The film is just a little contribution, with the help of these characters, of keeping historical memory alive.

Having said that, “How do you reach audiences?” I don’t even know. As we know, theatrical releases aren’t the way to reach audiences any longer. This film will premiere in New York at Lincoln Center and the box office won’t be sufficient to ensure a nationwide release. It’s a narrative I’m already familiar with. I do think that, if people can see this film, they can engage with it.

Cineaste: Has the film screened in New Orleans?

Minervini: It has. I couldn’t attend because I was in London. But the Mardi Gras Indians were there and there was a party after the screening. Instead of a Q&A, Judy, the Black Panthers, and the Indians threw a party. That was great.

We are trying to work with black communities across the country. KimStim is working on that. We received other distribution offers, but KimStim was definitely the one that was most excited about bringing the film to the black community. That’s why we went with them.

What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? is distributed in the United States by KimStim.

Richard Porton, a Cineaste editor, is author of Film and the Anarchist Imagination, due soon in a revised second edition.

Copyright © 2019 by Cineaste, Inc.

Cineaste, Vol. XLIV, No. 4