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Roberto Minervini asks ‘What You Gonna Do When the World’s On Fire?’

The many slip ups by one Democratic presidential frontrunner when it comes to the African American community should tell us that we have a problem in America. And it's all encompassing, reaching wide and across party lines. From racism to utter and absolute political correctness, we forget the basic principle here: we are all people and should all be treated as such -- human beings. In his latest work, documentary filmmaker Roberto Minervini points the finger at America's race issues. He gets some of it right, other things not so right. But in the end, he provides a map for plenty of conversations to come. And talking about it is always the right thing!

A still from Roberto Minervini's 'What You Gonna Do When the World's On Fire?'
A still from Roberto Minervini's 'What You Gonna Do When the World's On Fire?'

I recently heard an African American historian speak of the difference in ideologies between Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. It was the first time the idea was explained in such simple details. I’ll paraphrase it as I didn’t even have time to jot down the man’s name. But it was on Al Jazeera’s ‘Face to Face’ so if you get a chance, catch the program for yourself.

While Dr. King’s ideal of freedom meant that African Americans would be able to sit in the same restaurant, next to white Americans, and be served in the same respectful way regardless of their race, Malcolm X concept of freedom saw folks from his community owning their own restaurants, and be encouraged to become equals on a business level with their white counterparts. Both concepts seemed revolutionary at the time, so much so that each man was murdered for his ideals.

Fast forward more than fifty years and Italian-born-transplanted-to-the-US filmmaker Roberto Minervini offers a new POV into the African American struggle. I watched the film nearly a year ago at the Venice Film Festival, on a big screen and surrounded by colleagues, and now again on a link, on my computer. I have to say, so much has changed since that first viewing in both myself and the world around me. So, while I still recommend ‘What You Gonna Do When the World’s On Fire?’ to anyone and everyone, I have discovered one problem with it.

So, since my first viewing of Minervini’s film, and our interview in Venice, I’ve found a little corner of personal heaven in Harlem, NYC. As I walk the streets early in the morning, or late in the afternoon, I find the energy and vibrance of the neighborhood and its inhabitants infectious. It’s not the Louisiana sadness, that black and white filmed neglect of ‘What You Gonna Do…’ Harlem represents a community, full creativeness, and a live, modern-day 360 degree vision of what both Dr. King and Malcolm X wanted. The African American community in Harlem isn’t a victim, rather a victor. They have managed to entice downtowners like me to move up above 125th Street, while still proudly owning a lot of the business and homes around the area. As I get unequivocally invited into the Salvation Army every weekend to share a meal with those less fortunate, I realize how grand the vision of the Harlem community truly is.

Now I can hear Minervini’s words chastising me. Because he believes that white liberals, like yours truly, are the problem, not the solution for the African American community. Read my interview to find out exactly how. But in his film, perhaps what I object to is that he does show a sort of derelict black community, one destroyed by Hurricane Katrina and still struggling to overcome their so-called “ghosts of the past.” At the center of his film there is the half organized New Black Panther Party, plus Judy, one strong black woman being pushed down by the system around her, and two young brothers, in the family sense, who singlehandedly offer hope for the future. Yet on my second viewing, I didn’t get as caught up in the music, the art, the imagination of the Mardi Gras Indians that made my first time around ‘What You Gonna Do…’ so precious. I saw only the desperation.

It may be because I know a different reality now, one of course that I’ll never fully comprehend personally because of the color of my skin. But I can feel it all around me, on the subway, in the train stations, at the supermarket, the corner delis and in my beautifully varied building. I see a blend of each of the visions of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. I see freedom — and hope.

But you’ll have to watch Minervini’s film for yourself to decide and luckily, there are quite a few ways to do so!

‘What You Gonna Do When the World’s On Fire’ releases on August 16th at Film at Lincoln Center in NYC, followed by a national release via KimStim. The Maysles Documentary Film Center will also feature a short run of the film, starting on August 23rd with a Sneak Preview this Wednesday, August 14th at 7:30pm featuring subject Krystal Muhammad of the New Black Panther Party joining for the Q&A.

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