How should a civil democracy deal with a group of people whose lifestyles are so divergent they make neighbors, rightly or wrongly, feel uncomfortable? When officials botch such an interaction so badly that confrontation turns to violence, who’s to blame? Jason Osder looks at one sad case study in Let the Fire Burn, gathering archival footage dealing with a 1985 episode in Philadelphia that killed eleven people and burned 61 homes to the ground. The doc’s focus on period material confers an in-the-moment feel to the final product, bringing urgency to a story many in the audience will never have heard but which remains relevant after almost three decades.
Philadelphia’s MOVE collective, a back-to-nature group with Black Power leanings, favored dreadlocks and proselytized for raw food; they eschewed electricity but were okay with guns, and in a 1978 conflict over their Philadelphia home, a police officer was killed. (The group claimed they hadn’t shot him, but nine members were convicted of the killing; meanwhile, no officers were convicted in a brutal beating of MOVE member Delbert Africa that was caught on film.)
Tension simmered after the group moved to a new house in a middle-class neighborhood, where they boarded up windows, built a bunker on the roof, and used a PA system to broadcast profane complaints about how they’d been treated. On May 13, 1985, the city attempted to evict them by force. After a standoff involving occasional bursts of gunfire, police used a helicopter to drop explosives on the bunker; a fire soon started that was allowed to burn until all but two residents were dead and scores of surrounding houses were destroyed.
Osder tells this story using a variety of sources, ranging from the day’s live newscasts to the deposition of 13-year-old survivor Birdie Africa and extensive footage of a commission set up in the aftermath of public outcry. Much of this testimony is hotly debated before our eyes, and some has been disputed in the years since; in limiting the film’s pool of evidence, Osder prevents us from viewing this tragedy as a dead thing whose meaning will be offered up by historians. The account is vivid and sometimes heartbreaking, even when viewed through a law-and-order lens.
But while removing after-the-fact evidence from the picture has a useful effect, the doc could benefit from more information about what led up to that day. Viewers who’ve never heard of MOVE and are trying to decide how sympathetic they are to the group are hindered by an incomplete picture of how members came to be such a thorn in the city’s side, and what official persecution might have prompted their increasingly confrontational rhetoric.
The filmmaker’s view, one supposes, is that this is irrelevant — that no action that resulted in the deaths of five children (alongside six adults) can be justified, no matter how antagonistic their parents might have been. With editing that tightens the screw steadily over an hour and a half, Let the Fire Burn makes that case while reminding us of other famous instances (one a mere eight years later, in Waco, Texas) in which law enforcement seemingly preferred to let troublesome citizens die instead of figuring out how to bring them to justice.
Director-Producer: Jason Osder
Executive producer: Andrew Herwitz
Editor: Nels Bangerter
Sales: Andrew Herwitz, The Film Sales Company
No rating, 95 minutes