Director Roberto Minervini and Producer Denise Ping Lee
WHAT YOU GONNA DO WHEN THE WORLD’S ON FIRE? B+
USA France Italy (123 mi) 2018 d: Roberto Minervini
This is what living under oppression looks and feels like. It’s a remarkable documentary, shot in black and white by cinéma vérité cinematographer Diego Romero Suarez-Llanos, accentuating the graphic realism of the subject matter, though it’s often confusing, much like his earlier film The Other Side (2015), both focusing the camera’s attention on a small group of characters living on the margins, moving back and forth intermittently, with no narration or explanation identifying who they are, yet the intimacy granted to the filmmaker is essential in his personalized style of filmmaking, which is as raw and unfiltered as it gets. Unlike the right-wing Obama bashing of his earlier film, peeling away the layers of a backwoods culture of incendiary racial bigotry in West Monroe, Louisiana, with militia groups using Obama’s photo for target practice, this film moves around four different subjects, not really connected, yet thematically interrelated, which in this case features the lives of black citizens in New Orleans and Jackson, Mississippi in the summer of 2017 following Trump’s election. The stark difference in tone between the two films is staggering, as the white world is full of toxic aggression, free to flaunt their bigotry openly and without fear, while the black world has to deal with the unending onslaught of that white toxic aggression, with blacks targeted by police or subjects of hate crimes in disproportionate measures to their percentage of the population. But this film goes further, and while it’s made by a white Italian immigrant living in Texas, it actually gets under the psychological mindset of the constant barrage of unending hostility, where the powers that be continually threaten the underprivileged, where the police killers of unarmed blacks get away scot free, while the vicious perpetrators of hate crimes targeting innocent blacks get away as well, as the police never seem to solve these cases. With Trump in office (whose father Fred participated in a KKK march through Queens, New York in 1927), this was never more apparent, where one of his first official acts was removing white supremacist organizations from the FBI terror watch list (Why Aren't White Supremacists on the Terror Watch List? - The Ro), even as white supremacists were responsible for 100% of the race-based domestic terror attacks in 2018 (Trump's DOJ hid shocking report on growing terror threat from whi). There is no black equivalent to the KKK, no white lynchings, house burnings, or terror campaigns targeting whites, yet that doesn’t prevent whites (Megyn Kelly on Fox News) from fabricating stories about black terror groups attacking whites attempting to vote, basically stirring up white resentment, presenting utter fiction as facts. The point being, white culture is suffused with race hatred, mistakenly believing blacks think the same way, transferring that hatred into a black narrative even when it doesn’t exist, as there is no historical precedent for that other than isolated instances of slave revolts. Historically, the root of a white supremacist terror campaign comes from white slave plantation owners who believed they needed to instill violence and psychological terror to break the will of black slaves, where the root of slavery was instilling a legacy of fear. Blacks living in an environment with a history of unsolved KKK atrocities begin to believe conspiracy theories about how the police and justice departments are in cahoots with the KKK, as blacks have been the target of white wrath for centuries. Whites rarely think about these historical connections, or the psychological distress of growing up black in America, and while this film is hardly perfect, it’s a start in the right direction, as it actually attempts to understand how blacks are affected by racial injustice, as it’s more of a life or death matter, carrying a sense of dire urgency, while it barely matters at all to most whites, who simply aren’t concerned, as it doesn’t affect them personally in the same way it threatens every single black family.
Recalling the worst imaginable suffering in Spike Lee’s massive documentation of the aftereffects of Hurricane Katrina, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2005), showing a separate and unequal racially divided city of New Orleans adversely affecting black citizens, it’s important to understand there is a greater disparity between the rich and poor in Louisiana than in South Africa during Apartheid, with Minervini bringing a poetic vividness to poverty that few others can capture. The film opens and closes on Kevin Goodman, the Big Chief of Mardi Gras, leader of the Flaming Arrows, including the constant percussive beat and chants that are associated with his Carnival-style march through the streets of New Orleans, proudly adorned in flamboyant hand-stitched costumes that include white feathers and intricate patterns of ornate embroidery woven into the outfit, with matching fur boots, strutting in sequence, prancing to the beat, calling out to the neighborhood citizens in the same way they’ve been doing for hundreds of years. Since the founding of New Orleans in 1718 (Mardi Gras History | Mardi Gras New Orleans), the city has kept this tradition alive, emblematic of the mixed-race ethnic culture, blending African, Indian, and French with Cajun and creole folklore, customs, and cuisine, as runaway slaves were embraced and protected by Indian tribes during the plantation era. Mardi Gras is synonymous with the city of New Orleans, bringing in an enormous boost to the economy through massive tourism, yet that is in the safe and exclusively wealthy section of New Orleans centered around Bourbon Street and the French Quarter. The Big Chief, on the other hand, dances to smaller crowds through an exclusively black neighborhood, where it’s less commercial, no floats or throwing of the beads, just a simple procession through the narrow streets of the neighborhood, more akin to the jazz funeral, a quintessential New Orleans art form that’s associated with the birth of jazz, complete with the second line tradition that allows followers to join in marching behind. Moving freely between four subjects, another segment features two brothers, Ronaldo King (whose father is in prison) and the younger Titus Turner, ages 14 and 9, seemingly inseparable as they explore the run-down Mississippi neighborhood and play, innocents in a crime-riddled neighborhood, losing themselves in a mountain of tires, playing hide and seek, with Ronaldo upset after he gives up but Titus remains hidden, growing more fearful he may have suffered an accident. Meanwhile, Ronaldo schools Titus on the difference between skin color and race, suggesting there are differing racial complexions from dark to light skin, yet the underlying message is that their race is black, conveying at an early age an essential truth. While these kids are adorable, their mother Ashlei has a different perspective, having to give him the speech about what to do when stopped by police, but also how to stay out of trouble, as it’s about his age when most teenage kids start experimenting with drugs or committing petty crimes, teaching him not to indulge, even as others do, and not to place himself in a position where he could be sent to jail. Viewers are reminded that most white parents don’t have talks like this with their children. And sure enough, sometime later, Ronaldo is getting into trouble at school, mostly out of boredom, but his mother is incessant in drilling into his head that he needs to listen to and respect authority figures, as he’s an influence on his little brother, who watches his every move, where the negative consequences awaiting them both are alarming. A quarter of the 40 million blacks in America live below the poverty line, 10% are unemployed, with over a million incarcerated, while in Louisiana, nearly half (48.9%) of all black children are living in poverty.
Easily the heart of the film is Judy Hill, a 50-year old singer who bares her soul before the camera, sharing her life experiences, which are simply a series of unending trauma, where her open wounds are still exposed, yet she runs a neighborhood joint called the Ooh Poo Pah Doo Bar in Tremé, the oldest black neighborhood in New Orleans, named after the hit record by New Orleans legend Jessie Hill in 1960, Ooh Poo Pah Doo Part 1 - Jesse Hill - YouTube (2:23), Judy being his daughter. It’s here she can kick back with friends, sing some of her favorite doo-wop songs, and just hang out with a selective crowd that she calls her own, all free to express themselves as they please. While it’s clear this is her safe place, the root of her identity, authorities shut it down for coming up short on the rent, though she feels developers wanted it all along, entering into a discussion about not having the necessary papers, problems that have plagued blacks in the South since Emancipation, as obtaining papers, oftentimes nefariously, is how whites steal their land and property right out from under them, with the courts always siding against poor blacks, leaving her without options, seen clearing out all her stuff and shutting off the electricity. Perhaps the most harrowing scene is one of sheer heartbreak, sharing her personal story with a rape victim, acknowledging she’s a victim of abuse herself and a recovering addict, using piercingly raw language to convey the power of hurt that remains, with viewers finding themselves right in the mix, capturing every frazzled nerve, leading to an eruption of tears, becoming an emotional catharsis, where this sympathetic communion of souls at such a catastrophic time of need is utterly convincing and believable, as this kind of raw intimacy is rare in cinema, where you can’t script moments like this, yet it’s such an essential component in the history of black women, raped and sexually abused during slavery, yet the pattern persists, with black women disproportionately experiencing violence at home, at school, on the job, and in their neighborhoods (only Native Americans experience worse), continually forced to confront their worst fears (Violence Against Black Women – Many Types, Far-reaching Effects). The most visual presence is Krystal Muhammad leading the New Black Panther Party in Jackson, Mississippi, dressed all in black, raising their fists in black power salutes, demonstrating solidarity in their ranks, chanting slogans or calling for direct action, basically fighting to alleviate black fears in a community with a rich history of racial antagonism from the KKK. Initially seen handing out food and water to the homeless, or flagging cars on the street, just generating a community presence, they are called into action when a black man’s head (30-year old Jerome Jackson) is decapitated and left on a neighborhood doorstep, going door to door visiting the neighbors afterwards (with automatic weapons in plain view), attempting to unravel clues of what happened, yet they’re convinced it’s the actions of the KKK, spray-painting “nigger” all over several houses and cars, including the signpost of a church community center, yet the police have no answers. They take their protests directly to the police and to the State Capitol building (which they assert was built by slaves), claiming they’re all aligned with the KKK, as this is the continuing history of blacks living in Mississippi, from lynchings to a continuing line of unsolved murders, and now beheadings, all meant to terrorize and instill fear. Why the police don’t arrest anyone or act to prevent this kind of blatantly savage hate violence is their highest priority, fighting to create a safer reality, yet the police continue targeting innocent blacks instead (69 black men killed by police in just the first four months of 2018), where nothing ever changes. The tragedy occurring here is transparent, vividly real, yet also apparently endless, with no solution in sight. Not as powerful as Raoul Peck’s more thought-provoking 2017 Top Ten List #3 I Am Not Your Negro, yet this is empathetic filmmaking, revealing what it feels like to be poor and powerless, successfully placing viewers in the shoes of the black subjects, basically asking what would you do in similar circumstances?
February 13, 2015
Here’s an astonishing speech by U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves, who in 2010 became the second African-American appointed as federal judge in Mississippi. He read it to three young white men before sentencing them for the death of a 48-year-old black man named James Craig Anderson in a parking lot in Jackson, Mississippi, one night in 2011. They were part of a group that beat Anderson and then killed him by running over his body with a truck, yelling “white power” as they drove off.
The speech is long; Reeves asked the young men to sit down while he read it aloud in the courtroom. And it’s breathtaking, in both the moral force of its arguments and the palpable sadness with which they are delivered. We have decided to publish the speech, which we got from the blog Breach of Peace, in its entirety below. A warning to readers: He uses the word “nigger” 11 times.
One of my former history professors, Dennis Mitchell, recently released a history book entitled, A New History of Mississippi. “Mississippi,” he says, “is a place and a state of mind. The name evokes strong reactions from those who live here and from those who do not, but who think they know something about its people and their past.” Because of its past, as described by Anthony Walton in his book, Mississippi: An American Journey, Mississippi “can be considered one of the most prominent scars on the map” of these United States. Walton goes on to explain that “there is something different about Mississippi; something almost unspeakably primal and vicious; something savage unleashed there that has yet to come to rest.” To prove his point, he notes that, “[o]f the 40 martyrs whose names are inscribed in the national Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, AL, 19 were killed in Mississippi.” “How was it,” Walton asks, “that half who died did so in one state?” — my Mississippi, your Mississippi and our Mississippi.
Mississippi has expressed its savagery in a number of ways throughout its history — slavery being the cruelest example, but a close second being Mississippi’s infatuation with lynchings. Lynchings were prevalent, prominent and participatory. A lynching was a public ritual — even carnival-like — within many states in our great nation. While other states engaged in these atrocities, those in the Deep South took a leadership role, especially that scar on the map of America — those 82 counties between the Tennessee line and the Gulf of Mexico and bordered by Louisiana, Arkansas and Alabama.
Vivid accounts of brutal and terrifying lynchings in Mississippi are chronicled in various sources: Ralph Ginzburg’s 100 Years of Lynching and Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America, just to name two. But I note that today, the Equal Justice Initiative released Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror; apparently, it too is a must-read.
In Without Sanctuary, historian Leon Litwack writes that between 1882 and 1968 an estimated 4,742 blacks met their deaths at the hands of lynch mobs. The impact this campaign of terror had on black families is impossible to explain so many years later. That number contrasts with the 1,401 prisoners who have been executed legally in the United States since 1976. In modern terms, that number represents more than those killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom and more than twice the number of American casualties in Operation Enduring Freedom — the Afghanistan conflict. Turning to home, this number also represents 1,700 more than who were killed on Sept. 11. Those who died at the hands of mobs, Litwack notes, some were the victims of “legal” lynchings — having been accused of a crime, subjected to a “speedy” trial and even speedier execution. Some were victims of private white violence and some were merely the victims of “nigger hunts” — murdered by a variety of means in isolated rural sections and dumped into rivers and creeks. “Back in those days,” according to black Mississippians describing the violence of the 1930s, “to kill a Negro wasn’t nothing. It was like killing a chicken or killing a snake. The whites would say, ‘niggers jest supposed to die, ain’t no damn good anyway — so jest go an’ kill ‘em.’ ... They had to have a license to kill anything but a nigger. We was always in season.” Said one white Mississippian, “A white man ain’t a-going to be able to live in this country if we let niggers start getting biggity.” And, even when lynchings had decreased in and around Oxford, one white resident told a visitor of the reaffirming quality of lynchings: “It’s about time to have another [one],” he explained, “[w]hen the niggers get so that they are afraid of being lynched, it is time to put the fear in them.”
How could hate, fear or whatever it was transform genteel, God-fearing, God-loving Mississippians into mindless murderers and sadistic torturers? I ask that same question about the events which bring us together on this day. Those crimes of the past, as well as these, have so damaged the psyche and reputation of this great state.
Mississippi soil has been stained with the blood of folk whose names have become synonymous with the civil rights movement like Emmett Till, Willie McGee, James Cheney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, Vernon Dahmer, George W. Lee, Medgar Evers and Mack Charles Parker. But the blood of the lesser-known people like Luther Holbert and his wife, Elmo Curl, Lloyd Clay, John Hartfield, Nelse Patton, Lamar Smith, Clinton Melton, Ben Chester White, Wharlest Jackson and countless others, saturates these 48,434 square miles of Mississippi soil. On June 26, 2011, four days short of his 49th birthday, the blood of James Anderson was added to Mississippi’s soil.
The common denominator of the deaths of these individuals was not their race. It was not that they all were engaged in freedom fighting. It was not that they had been engaged in criminal activity, trumped up or otherwise. No, the common denominator was that the last thing that each of these individuals saw was the inhumanity of racism. The last thing that each felt was the audacity and agony of hate, senseless hate: crippling, maiming them and finally taking away their lives.
Mississippi has a tortured past, and it has struggled mightily to reinvent itself and become a New Mississippi. New generations have attempted to pull Mississippi from the abyss of moral depravity in which it once so proudly floundered in. Despite much progress and the efforts of the new generations, these three defendants are before me today: Deryl Paul Dedmon, Dylan Wade Butler and John Aaron Rice. They and their co-conspirators ripped off the scab of the healing scars of Mississippi ... causing her (our Mississippi) to bleed again.
Hate comes in all shapes, sizes, colors, and from this case, we know it comes in different sexes and ages. A toxic mix of alcohol, foolishness and unadulterated hatred caused these young people to resurrect the nightmarish specter of lynchings and lynch mobs from the Mississippi we long to forget. Like the marauders of ages past, these young folk conspired, planned, and coordinated a plan of attack on certain neighborhoods in the city of Jackson for the sole purpose of harassing, terrorizing, physically assaulting and causing bodily injury to black folk. They punched and kicked them about their bodies — their heads, their faces. They prowled. They came ready to hurt. They used dangerous weapons; they targeted the weak; they recruited and encouraged others to join in the coordinated chaos; and they boasted about their shameful activity. This was a 2011 version of the nigger hunts.
Though the media and the public attention of these crimes have been focused almost exclusively on the early morning hours of June 26, 2011, the defendants’ terror campaign is not limited to this one incident. There were many scenes and many actors in this sordid tale which played out over days, weeks and months. There are unknown victims like the John Doe at the golf course who begged for his life and the John Doe at the service station. Like a lynching, for these young folk going out to “Jafrica” was like a carnival outing. It was funny to them — an excursion which culminated in the death of innocent, African-American James Craig Anderson. On June 26, 2011, the fun ended.
But even after Anderson’s murder, the conspiracy continued ... And, only because of a video, which told a different story from that which had been concocted by these defendants, and the investigation of law enforcement — state and federal law enforcement working together — was the truth uncovered.
What is so disturbing ... so shocking ... so numbing ... is that these nigger hunts were perpetrated by our children ... students who live among us ... educated in our public schools ... in our private academies ... students who played football lined up on the same side of scrimmage line with black teammates ... average students and honor students. Kids who worked during school and in the summers; kids who now had full-time jobs and some of whom were even unemployed. Some were pursuing higher education and the Court believes they each had dreams to pursue. These children were from two-parent homes and some of whom were the children of divorced parents, and yes some even raised by a single parent. No doubt, they all had loving parents and loving families.
In letters received on his behalf, Dylan Butler, whose outing on the night of June 26 was not his first, has been described as “a fine young man,” “a caring person,” “a well mannered man” who is truly remorseful and wants to move on with his life ... a very respectful ... a good man ... a good person ... a lovable, kindhearted teddy bear who stands in front of bullies ... and who is now ashamed of what he did. Butler’s family is a mixed-race family: For the last 15 years, it has consisted of an African-American stepfather and stepsister, plus his mother and two sisters. The family, according to the stepfather, understandably is “saddened and heartbroken.”
These were everyday students like John Aaron Rice, who got out of his truck, struck James Anderson in the face and kept him occupied until others arrived. ... Rice was involved in multiple excursions to so-called “Jafrica,” but he, for some time, according to him and his mother, and an African-American friend shared his home address.
And, sadly, Deryl Dedmon, who straddled James Anderson and struck him repeatedly in the face and head with his closed fists. He too was a “normal” young man indistinguishable in so many ways from his peers. Not completely satisfied with the punishment to which he subjected James Anderson, he “deliberately used his vehicle to run over James Anderson — killing him.” Dedmon now acknowledges he was filled with anger.
I asked the question earlier, but what could transform these young adults into the violent creatures their victims saw? It was nothing the victims did ... they were not championing any cause ... political ... social ... economic ... nothing they did ... not a wolf whistle ... not a supposed crime ... nothing they did. There is absolutely no doubt that in the view of the court the victims were targeted because of their race.
The simple fact is that what turned these children into criminal defendants was their joint decision to act on racial hatred. In the eyes of these defendants (and their co-conspirators) the victims were doomed at birth. ... Their genetic makeup made them targets.
In the name of White Power, these young folk went to “Jafrica” to “fuck with some niggers!” — echoes of Mississippi’s past. White Power! Nigger! According to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, that word, nigger, is the “universally recognized opprobrium, stigmatizing African-Americans because of their race.” It’s the nuclear bomb of racial epithets — as Farai Chideya has described the term. With their words, with their actions — “I just ran that nigger over” — there is no doubt that these crimes were motivated by the race of the victims. And from his own pen, Dedmon, sadly and regretfully wrote that he did it out of “hatred and bigotry.”
The court must respond to one letter it received from one identified as a youth leader in Dylan Butler’s church — a mentor, he says — and who describes Dylan as “a good person.” The point that “[t]here are plenty of criminals that deserve to be incarcerated,” is well taken. Your point that Dylan is not one of them — not a criminal ... is belied by the facts and the law. Dylan was an active participant in this activity, and he deserves to be incarcerated under the law. What these defendants did was ugly ... it was painful ... it is sad ... and it is indeed criminal.
In the Mississippi we have tried to bury, when there was a jury verdict for those who perpetrated crimes and committed lynchings in the name of White Power ... that verdict typically said that the victim died at the hands of persons unknown. The legal and criminal justice system operated with ruthless efficiency in upholding what these defendants would call White Power.
Today, though, the criminal justice system (state and federal) has proceeded methodically, patiently and deliberately seeking justice. Today we learned the identities of the persons unknown ... they stand here publicly today. The sadness of this day also has an element of irony to it: Each defendant was escorted into court by agents of an African-American United States Marshal, having been prosecuted by a team of lawyers which includes an African-American AUSA from an office headed by an African-American U.S. attorney — all under the direction of an African-American attorney general, for sentencing before a judge who is African-American, whose final act will be to turn over the care and custody of these individuals to the BOP [Federal Bureau of Prisons] — an agency headed by an African-American.
Today we take another step away from Mississippi’s tortured past ... we move farther away from the abyss. Indeed, Mississippi is a place and a state of mind. And those who think they know about her people and her past will also understand that her story has not been completely written. Mississippi has a present and a future. That present and future has promise. As demonstrated by the work of the officers within these state and federal agencies — black and white, male and female, in this Mississippi they work together to advance the rule of law. Having learned from Mississippi’s inglorious past, these officials know that in advancing the rule of law, the criminal justice system must operate without regard to race, creed or color. This is the strongest way Mississippi can reject those notions — those ideas which brought us here today.
At their guilty plea hearings, Deryl Paul Dedmon, Dylan Wade Butler and John Aaron Rice told the world exactly what their roles were ... it is ugly ... it is painful ... it is sad ... it is criminal.
The court now sentences the defendants as follows: [The specific sentences are not part of the judge’s prepared remarks.]
The court has considered the advisory guidelines computations and the sentencing factors under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a). The court has considered the defendants–‘history and characteristics.’ The court has also considered unusual circumstances — the extraordinary circumstances — and the peculiar seriousness and gravity of those offenses. I have paid special attention to the plea agreements and the recommendations of the United States. I have read the letters received on behalf of the defendants. I believe these sentences provide just punishment to each of these defendants and equally important, I believe they serve as adequate deterrence to others and I hope that these sentences will discourage others from heading down a similar life-altering path. I have considered the sentencing guidelines and the policy statements and the law. These sentences are the result of much thought and deliberation.
These sentences will not bring back James Craig Anderson nor will they restore the lives they enjoyed prior to 2011. The court knows that James Anderson’s mother, who is now 89 years old, lived through the horrors of the Old Mississippi, and the court hopes that she and her family can find peace in knowing that with these sentences, in the New Mississippi, justice is truly blind. Justice, however, will not be complete unless these defendants use the remainder of their lives to learn from this experience and fully commit to making a positive difference in the New Mississippi. And, finally, the court wishes that the defendants also can find peace.