An astounding work of documentary film-making, Let The Fire Burn uses only archival footage to tell the devastating story of Philadelphia’s 1985 police raid fiasco, which turned a working-class neighborhood into a fiery war zone, a living hell that claimed 11 lives, including those of five children.
First-time director Jason Osder and editor Nels Bangerter masterfully spliced the found footage — newscasts, student projects and clips from a post-disaster special hearing — together to construct a narrative that encases the tragedy like a jewel, so that it reflects multiple points of view and flickers with other stories of injustice.
In this calamity, the two warring parties are the city authorities and a group called MOVE, an organization with elements of black separatism and anti-technology environmentalism. MOVE members are mesmerizing to watch and listen to, perhaps because the MOVE lifestyle seems as though it could have only sprouted up in the late 1970s. Members wear dreadlocks and speak in a sanctimonious language laden with references to their “religion of life” and the teachings of their leader, John Africa. The children of the group wear hardly any clothes, eat only raw food (including raw chicken), and it’s hard not to feel sorry for them.
One of these children, who went by the name Birdie Africa, is introduced early on in the film. In a video testimony, he tells what life was like in MOVE and how he happened to be one of the two survivors of the police raid/bombing. He’s soft spoken, apparently broken, reluctant to communicate in anything other than nods of his head. Whenever he’s seen, he’s a constant reminder that innocent people — many of which were children — died or were forever wounded in this series of regrettable events.
And both sides can take blame. MOVE was militant, religious in the worst of ways. Their neighbors, who were also mostly black, couldn’t stand them. Their commune smelled of compost and humane waste. Moreover, they’d rant out their windows on megaphones against “the system,” flinging all sorts of curses and f-bombs into the neighborhood so as to rattle those around them. It was their neighbors, more than anyone, that wanted them evicted: so as to stop the noise, ease the tension, and help the malnourished-looking MOVE children to find care.
But police, who appear in the film as racist, incompetent and bloodthirsty, make everything worse. In archival footage, they can be seen savagely kicking a MOVE member who’s obviously given himself up to custody. But, of course, no officer is ever convicted of wrongdoing in relation to what must be called a beating. Even after the great disaster, in which police fired 10,000 rounds and dropped bombs on MOVE headquarters, accidentally burning some 61 West Philadelphia homes in the process, no criminal charges were ever filed. It seems outrageous, right? And while Osder’s film doesn’t push a specific spin on the tragedy, one can’t help but think that the lack of charges were a serious miscarriage of justice.
Sadly, Osder’s film gives the impression that this catastrophe was somewhat inevitable. Neither side ever appears willing to understand or work with the other, and everyone involved seems way too quick to hurl insults, throw punches and pull triggers. Even the one glimmer of hope — the testimony of the officer who went to save little Birdie Africa from the flames — is snuffed out when one learns of the racist actions of his fellow officers. It’s more than depressing.
But Let The Fire Burn is probably healthy to see. History, as the saying goes, is a tragedy. And watching this feels like running a finger over a scar. Even though it’s hard to believe an American city could suffer such self-inflicted wounds, it’s good — in the most sobering of ways — to see how a city could bomb itself. And if it could happen in the City of Brotherly Love, why couldn’t it happen in the City of Lakes?
Let The Fire Burn is playing at the Lagoon Cinema.