It’s astounding. I’ve watched a number of top-notch documentaries from 2013(“The Act of Killing”, “Stories We Tell”, “Cutie & the Boxer”), but “Let the Fire Burn” just may be the finest of them all. It’s certainly the most controversial, plus it’s based on an actual event that far too many people have forgotten about—if they’ve ever even heard of it in the first place. And it’s so tragic and earth-shaking, that not only should most people be screaming about the injustice of it, but should be concerned about the still ever-present examples of abuse of power and police brutality in the United States. The horrible denouement of this 1985 city of Philadelphia event, was the death of 6 adults, 5 children, and the destruction of over 60 homes—all stemming from a police decision to drop an incendiary device on the top of a building—connected to dozens of other family dwellings. It’s one of the most shameful events in recent American history, and a story that has fascinated and appalled me for nearly 30 years.
MOVE was a radical, “back to nature” organization based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, that had antagonized police and neighborhood groups for a number of years. They weren’t angels. The group was led by a mysterious man, who had carved out a new “philosophy” and had renamed himself “John Africa”. A number of people in the 1970’s, predominantly African-Americans like himself, joined the MOVE group—which many folks began labeling a cult. Among their practices were eating raw foods that they often grew themselves, and cutting their children off from the accepted practices of society(playing with toys, traditional schooling, and even wearing clothes). This wasn’t done in the backwoods somewhere, but in two different, highly populated Philadelphia neighborhoods. Residents complained about unsanitary conditions and indecency. While violence was originally not part of the picture, a clash between MOVE and the Philadelphia Police Department ended with the death of an officer in 1978. Some claim this was a result of “friendly fire”, but a trial resulted in the imprisonment of NINE members of MOVE for the tragic death of one man. Over the next seven years, MOVE became more belligerent and more confrontational. There were constant inflammatory and profane bullhorn speeches that rattled concerned neighbors, and made it impossible to co-exist with the MOVE members. Many MOVE supporters believed that the police now had a vendetta against the following. It all came to a head in May of 1985, when police attempted to evict MOVE from Philadelphia’s Osage Avenue. The authorities appeared armed and ready for a small war, and many would view their eventual tactics as criminal and wildly unnecessary.
Freedom and acceptance are not easy processes. I have no doubt that many of the tactics of MOVE were outlandish and intrusive. Their ways were unusual, and difficult for many to understand. But I DO “get” a movement of people who decide to turn their back on “normal” society, and trying a different road. The Amish do it. Many would say the Hasidic community does too. I do not support a group of citizens making life miserable for another group of citizens with their radical ways. But I roundly condemn the violent and catastrophic decisions of the Philadelphia Police Department and the city’s local government officials—including, but not restricted to, the city’s first African-American mayor at that time. I also have a HUGE issue with black children being roasted to death in a fire. Don’t you? I’ve already had one argument, regarding this documentary and its subject matter, with a former Philly resident(who, I should point out, lived nowhere near this disadvantaged neighborhood while residing in the city). It proved to me that even intelligent people, who I would think should know better, go far too easy on the ordained “authorities”. Think of how many people would be in jail if being a “pain-in-the-ass” was a crime. Even if MOVE was considered a public nuisance, I find it impossible to come to terms with so many deaths—especially the innocent children. Far too often, the actions of police are cast off as “unfortunate mistakes”(it would be simple for me to provide a list). The proliferation of phones with cameras and personal recording devices, are now making many of these incidents much easier to bring into the light. Which begs the question: how much did this type of brutality occur before i-Phones? Btw, despite an investigation that found that law enforcement acted negligently, no criminal charges were ever filed.
Director and producer Jason Osder has provided a powerful and riveting history lesson that I hope hordes of the populace takes the time to see. And he did it using only actual archival footage, with no narration and zero proselytising. It’s astonishing what he was able to garner. And that includes extensive use of an archived interview, with one of the two survivors of that horrible attack—a young boy of about 13 years of age. I’ll never forget the eloquence of the two female MOVE members, who spoke during an official investigative proceeding, shortly after the tragic event. They explained and represented themselves beautifully, and made their condescending questioners look foolish. A society should be judged by how it treats its weakest, and its most disadvantaged—no matter how objectionable they may be to the majority. The innocent were slaughtered in Philadelphia in 1985. It wasn’t the first time in the United States, and unfortunately I fear it won’t be the last. Towards the finale of this brilliant work, we are told of a white police officer, who acted heroically in his successful attempt to usher the surviving boy to safety. We also learn that he was thereafter greeted with the words “nigger lover” being spray-painted on his precinct locker. He soon retired from the department with post traumatic stress disorder, not long after that occurrence. SEE this amazing documentary. And maybe this 1985 event will haunt you for decades as it has haunted me. Grade: A