By Gregory Crofton
A sure sign you’ve watched a good documentary is that trip you take to the computer after it’s ended to research where the issue stands, or to find out what people in the film are doing now. “LET THE FIRE BURN” is a different kind of trip.
Made over a period of ten years by Jason Osder, now an assistant professor at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs, this documentary doesn’t resolve anything. Instead it reports a complicated police vs. radicals story in real time using title cards, archival news reports and video testimony gathered by a post-fire investigation.
It is an effective method, even despite a slow, sleep-tempting start. But when it gets going the documentary takes the viewer to Philadelphia, May 1985, when the mayor, police and fire officials decided to drop a bomb on a rowhouse. The explosion led to the incineration of 61 homes.
The aim of the explosives, tossed in a satchel from a helicopter, was to take out a gun tower/bunker built on top of the rowhouse, which was situated in a working-class neighborhood in West Philadelphia. Holed up in that house was a group called MOVE. They were a radical, back-to-Earth-type activists of mostly black men, women and children led by a man who called himself John Africa.
Before the bomb and subsequent fire, the MOVE group had been in constant conflict with its neighborhood. Profanities and other rants streamed from a loudspeaker attached to the side of the house. Families in the area became desperate for the police to do something. Officers finally took action using a bulldozer, then gunfire and then the “bomb,” the assault left 11 dead, five of whom were children.
The mystery was, and still is, why the police and fire officials let the fire burn. Was it pent up race-driven frustration that led to inaction? Water canons that could have doused the fire quickly — it took a while to get going — were already in place. Earlier the same day the canons were used in an attempt to flood MOVE out of the building.
Almost unbelievably, the story of “LET THE FIRE BURN” goes farther back and gets even more complicated. This was not MOVE’s first run-in with the cops. In 1978 when the MOVE lived in a different section of the city, the group had its first armed conflict seemingly provoked by a neighborhood situation similar to the one in 1985. That skirmish left one officer shot to death, and nine members of MOVE convicted of the crime.
If you’re unaware of these shocking events, this film is your chance to observe it firsthand. Credit belongs with the broadcast reporters who worked the scene and brought back the footage. This is director Jason Osder’s first film. He conducted interviews for it, but decided to scrap them in favor of an all archival approach.
Read about Osder’s career and find out about his next project at Filmmaker Magazine. “LET THE FIRE BURN” is playing now at select spots across the country. To learn more about the film, you can visit its website here.