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

Ronaldo and Titus are brothers, well half-brothers you guess, as they don’t share a surname. Their latest dad is in prison, so they spend most of their time wandering the streets and railway yards of Jackson, Mississippi. One thing that their mother has made clear: they must be home before the street lights go on. There were some street shootings last week, and more the week before that, and they don’t want to be out when that happens.

Ronaldo has stopped paying attention at school, much to the frustration of his mother, who sees education as being the only way of getting out of here. It doesn’t matter if his teachers don’t respect him, he must still doff his hat and pass his exams. If he doesn’t, that’s just what “they” want. Besides which, if Ronaldo gives up, what will happen to Titus?

Meanwhile

Judy runs a bar, which is a meeting place for anyone who needs to talk and feel better about themselves. This is where the victims of racism hang out, and the former addicts, and the people who have suffered sexual abuse. In one scene, women almost try and one up each other with traumatic tales of the violence of former partners. One wishes for a man who would only have sex with her when she’s awake.

But the area is being gentrified and Judy can’t keep up her payments on the bar. She brings everyone in for one last night where she sings unintelligible lyrics and the house band plays as if their life depends on it. Then she gets to the phone and calls the electricity company to make sure that the power has all been shut off.

Meanwhile

After another racist murder, the New Black Panther Party is demonstrating. They look a little older and less elegant than the old Black Panthers but are just as righteous (this film was largely taken in 2017 – it would be interesting to see the NBBP composition since the recent demos). They are led by Krystal Muhammed, although – unlike most of the rest of the film – some men are also present.

The Panthers hand out leaflets to passing cars then march to the courtroom chanting “No Justice No Peace”. They assert their right to demonstrate which ultimately leads the police to attack them forcefully, and firing some sorts of guns. As NBBP members are led away in handcuffs, the rest of the Party regroups and carries on marching.

Meanwhile

Something to do with Mardi Gras Indians. I didn’t get this bit at all.

I was surprized to see the cinema was nearly empty, as the trailer made it look superb. Well, seeing as the trailer cherry picked the best bits, if that didn’t motivate you, then this maybe isn’t the film for you. Still, there’s a lot worth seeing. The monochrome photography is mesmerising and the stories are well worth hearing.

Yet the whole thing is a little too inchoate, and keeps too much of a distance from what it is showing. We see a lot of “What” but not much “Why”. This has led some critics to see the NBPP members as figures of fun, and even reverse racists. We see lots of shots of them being enraged but not enough background about the racist incidents that have enraged them.

Without any great understanding of who we are watching, the film feels ever so slightly voyeuristic. It barely explains what brings these stories together. We can assume its something to do with racism, but more often than not it feels like we are being told a series of random stories which have been flung together for no apparent reason.

We still notice some things – firstly how deeply segregation is rooted in the US, particularly in the South. This is not  merely a “predominantly Black” area – the only white faces we see are of the cops who come to beat the residents into submission. And where the men have been either incarcerated or run away, it is the women who call the shots.

Absolutely go and see the film, it is very much worth a viewing. But it would have been even more worth seeing if there were a little more coherence, if we were clearer what is the point in all this?

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