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Most documentaries about controversial subjects are advocacy pieces with an active agenda to promote, whether the subject is our health, the environment, government policy or historical events. The truth be told, the most successful advocacy documentaries end up on some level appealing to emotion.
Jason Osder's 2013 docu Let the Fire Burn is as fair minded as a show can be about a recent historical event that surely still divides the politics of Philadelphia. The MOVE Organization is an urban black liberation group, originally Christian-oriented, that began in 1972. All of its members changed their last names to Africa, to match that of their leader John Africa. The non-violent group practiced a radical anti-technological lifestyle. Trouble began when neighbors of MOVE's headquarters in a residential neighborhood complained of belligerent confrontations and frequent profane public address harangues broadcast into the street. The members and their children lived in unsanitary conditions. 1978 marked an attempt by the Philly police to search the headquarters, which resulted in a shoot-out that left one police officer dead and a number of people wounded. Nine MOVE members were convicted for the one killing, and sentenced to long prison terms.
The MOVE people relocated to another address, where they resumed all of their previous anti-social behavior, adding frequent direct provocations and threats of violence. When the cops finally returned in 1985, the clash became a major street battle. Less than a day later, almost all of the MOVE members inside the building were killed. A police bomb to the roof started a fire that burned the house to the ground, along with fifty other houses in the neighborhood. The legal battles sorting out what happened continued for over eleven years.
A docu about MOVE could be spun in at least two distinct directions. The group was a major disruption and a threat to law and order, a civic problem that had to be dealt with. As the standoff with the city escalated, so did the verbal threats of violence, which for many labeled the group as urban terrorists. An advocate for the MOVE people could claim that they were only exercising their right to be different and live outside the strictures of white-dominated society. In this interpretation, all the trouble was the result of white police persecution. Let the Fire Burn chooses to remain neutral. Rather than let authority figures tell the story, Osder's film accesses hundreds of hours of TV news footage, especially of the 1985 siege and burning. Much of what we see is the events playing out as they happened, with newsmen reporting on the spot. We know better than to take what we see and hear as the whole truth; the 'action news' teams are often forced to guess at what's going on. That all of this news video still exists is fairly miraculous.
Let the Fire Burn does contain scripted sequences, visual montages plus voiceovers that communicate basic facts. But it also gives us earlier news film of visits to the MOVE compound, where we see the members' children playing and hear their parents and guardians recite the tenets of John Africa's social philosophy. They don't believe in medicine or science. Whenever a member is asked about the movement's aims, we hear vaguely ominous references to their leader's "strategies"... as in, "he has a strategy for that".
More prime-source footage comes from various hearings and courtroom proceedings after the 1985 battle, where the tactics of the police are questioned. High ranking law enforcement officials admit that events took a wrong turn, but fall short of explaining why part of the assault force was made of veterans of the 1978 shoot-out that wanted revenge for the shooting of one of their own. Yet any sympathy for the MOVE contingent dissolves with the militant testimony of two surviving movement members, both of whom respond to every question with a furious and insufficiently supported accusation of mass murder against the police and the city.
Finally, we also see parts of the deposition of young Birdie Africa, a small child who was one of only two or three MOVE members to escape the burning building, where eleven people including five children perished. Birdie describes life in the compound and his own desire to escape from its deprivations -- children were not allowed to watch TV. When the lower part of the building was consumed by fire, other members tried to pull Birdie back in. A pair of policemen rescued him.
The evidence of the videotapes suggests that the Philadelphia police did little to prevent the supposed eviction from turning into a slaughter. After hours of gunfire the cops dropped a bomb on the roof of the building, to knock out a construction they decided was a fortified pillbox. And when the entire building caught fire, the order was given not to fight it, even though the flames spread quickly through the neighborhood. Water cannons that had been used to confuse and distract the MOVE defenders were turned off. Tearful neighbors, evacuated at a moment's notice with the clothes on their backs, watched everything they owned go up in smoke.
Let the Fire Burn makes us think about other armed confrontations between law authorities and dissident groups that defy the government or due process of law, like the Branch Davidians at Waco. Something had to be done about the MOVE separatists, and the nature of their group almost guaranteed that the outcome would be violent. The docu's only speculative theme looks for evidence to back up the charge by MOVE survivors that the 1985 confrontation was a slaughter conducted by racist officers. This is denied of course, even though Philadelphia Police Department's record of racial conflicts is a widely accepted reality. One of the stinging revelations that comes out of Let the Fire Burn is that the two cops that saved Birdie Africa were later harassed by some of their colleagues on the force, and allegedly branded as "nigger lovers."
Zeitgeist Films' DVD of Let the Fire Burn has the urgency and drama of watching a real-life disaster unfold on live TV, except in this case the events of a day are compressed into about an hour. The video quality is excellent considering that the original flat TV coverage has been enlarged to fit a widescreen aspect ratio; in many cases the cropping helps to focus our attention on action seen in (expertly shot) handheld camera footage. At several junctures the news crews are forced to withdraw or take cover behind vehicles, as gunshots come their way.
Zeitgeist has packed this incendiary docu with several interesting extras, including a Q&A session with the director, an original trailer, and a 2002 interview with Birdie Africa, who by then was using the name Michael Ward. Let the Fire Burn is certain to provoke heated discussion. 1
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Let the Fire Burn Blu-ray rates:
1. Boy, do I feel for those poor residents who were flushed from their houses without warning, and then forced to watch their whole block burn while the cops and fire department looked on, doing nothing. I wish it were possible for similar documentaries to collate news footage from other important, life-changing events in our cities. I'm thinking of the 1992 riots that threw Los Angeles into total havoc for the better part of three days. While the residents of the city hunkered down in front of their TVs, flipping nervously between news channels to see what was burning and where the looting was happening, our police chief Darryl Gates kept his force off the streets, surrendering us to arsonists, thieves and killers.
At one point I saw smoke rising in all four directions from my house; it was the only time in my life I've carried a gun, just to see if anything menacing was happening on the business street behind my house. I personally witnessed some local house-squatters carting home carloads of stolen stereo equipment and appliances. When he finally spoke out, the soon-to-be ex-Chief Gates behaved as if the city had been taught a lesson for not supporting his oppressive ideas about law enforcement. I still have about twenty hours of news coverage on VHS tapes, if they still play. I wonder if the major news outlets in Los Angeles kept the raw camera footage, as was happily the case in Philadelphia.
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.