Jason Osder’s documentary Let the Fire Burn sheds light on an incident that’s long-forgotten by many, except for those who lived in the Philadelphia area in 1980s (full disclosure, this reviewer did). On May 13, 1985, the city essentially committed an act of self-immolation—offering the lives of nearly a dozen members of a radical group and the livelihoods of hundreds of its residents as sacrifice.
After a long-simmering and sometimes violent feud between the city of Philadelphia and the Black Power group MOVE, Mayor Wilson Goode, the city’s first black mayor, ordered the police to extricate 13 MOVE members barricading themselves in their row-house commune. After failing to collapse a bunker on the roof with water cannons, and expending 10,000 rounds of ammunition (the Philadelphia police actually ran out of bullets and asked the state police to deliver additional munitions)—the decision was made to drop an explosive device on the structure.
With local TV cameras capturing the action, residents watched as a fire began to engulf the row-home. Only two MOVE members were able to escape the fire; the remaining 11 people, including five children, died. As if that weren’t tragic enough, a total of 61 homes on and around Osage Avenue, a primarily working class black neighborhood, also burned to the ground. Only later was it discovered that the authorities made the decision to “let the fire burn.” By the time the fire department started battling the blaze, it was too large and fast to control, destroying much of the community.
First-time filmmaker Osder, with masterful editing by Nels Bangerter, has crafted a captivating and taut documentary about the MOVE organization and its long and often antagonistic relationship with the city. Even more impressively, the film is composed entirely from found footage: news clips, police cameras, MOVE videos, post-fire hearings and the video deposition of the youngest survivor, Birdie Africa (aka Michael Moses Ward). By excluding more recent interviews, Osder tries to ensure that testimonials and memories aren’t distorted by the passage of time. Let the Fire Burn remains decidedly of the era, but the themes of racism, police brutality, First Amendment rights and finger-pointing politicians still resonate today.
Let the Fire Burn touches briefly on the history of the quasi-religious group, which was based on the teachings of John Africa, a proponent of black liberation who rejected civil authority. They adopted a communal lifestyle, eschewed most technology and allowed only a raw food diet for children. In one clip, a MOVE member tells the interviewer that charges of child neglect are preposterous. He points to the naked children behind him and says that they always have enough to eat and their full bellies proved it. The children’s bodies, however, have the distended stomachs that are usually associated with those in famine-stricken countries.
MOVE is alternately called—by neighbors and city officials alike—a cult, a commune, a religion, extremists and terrorists. The group never tried to live peacefully with its neighbors, often antagonizing them with unsanitary living conditions and broadcasting profanity-laced tirades from loudspeakers mounted on the house.
Let the Fire Burn implies that the 1985 incident may have been payback for a 1978 standoff, in which a police officer was shot and killed. Nine MOVE members were sentenced to 30-90 years in prison for the killing, while three police officers were acquitted by a judge in the beating of Delbert Africa during the same standoff—even though the vicious attack was captured on tape.
While the film slows in the middle (a few clips could have easily been excised), the momentum picks up in the third act when the community and authorities try to piece together exactly how the incident spun out of control. If anyone is cast as the film’s antagonist, it’s Police Commissioner Gregor Sambor, who epitomizes many of the officials and politicians. Under questioning from a fact-finding commission, he provides evasive non-answers about who exactly decided to “let the fire burn.” That question, along with many others that the film raises, aren’t easy ones to answer, but well worth the reflection.
Director: Jason Osder
Editor: Nels Bangerter
Release Date: Oct. 2, 2013 (New York); Oct. 18 (select cities nationwide)