Let The Fire Burn is an incendiary documentary on the tragic standoff between MOVE, a “radical” black group and the city of Philadelphia in the early 80s. Director Jason Osder eschews narration in favor of weaving together archival news footage, city hearings footage, and a MOVE film to create a visceral, eloquent, yet even-handed portrayal of events on the day of May 13th, 1985.
The film is a trenchant look at how a series of incredibly bad political decisions resulted in a fiery fiasco that claimed the lives of six adults and five children and led to the destruction of 61 homes in West Philadelphia. Let The Fire Burn is a subtle exploration of race tensions, police action, and terrorist labeling—the audience is left to draw its own conclusions, although answers as to how something so egregiously grievous came to pass are hard to come by.
MOVE’s first incarnation in the mid 70s is as progressive political organization concerned with issues impacting the black community. They do not espouse violence; they are not a religious cult. In fact, they come across as benign as any other hippy-dippy commune with their rhetoric of unity, love, and harmony. Their kids do not wear clothes and only eat raw food and the community does not believe in using modern luxuries, but that might well be the extent of their singularity. The heavily dogmatic component is definitely not present, especially in a religious sense. They all take the last name of their leader, John Africa, and while concerned with “the system” and its corruption, they are a far cry from the militant organization the city seems hell-bent on portraying them as. One cannot help but feel that had conservative Mayor Frank Rizzo not made it his tenure’s goal to dismantle MOVE, this story would have read rather differently.
In a particularly chilling interview, he says “we’re backing off too much,” clearly referencing and the handling of the Black Panther movement, which he derides as not being authentic. He openly mocks its members who upon moving to Africa, Cuba, and China, he claims, were all too quick to want to return back home, where they would still have more freedom than elsewhere. Rizzo’s bellicose stance culminates in a raid on the MOVE compound in 1978 that claims the life of one police officer and as a result nine of MOVE members are convicted for murder. Three police officers go on trial for brutally assaulting one of the MOVE members and are found innocent, despite evidence to the contrary. It is not hard to see that MOVE’s claims of police persecution and brutality are not merely victim-posturing and hold a good deal of truth—in fact, much of the rhetoric employed by city officials in the movie will have you scratching your head, feeling like you have fallen into some sort of an anachronistic time warp back to the 50s.
MOVE soon regroups in a new compound in West Philadelphia and they are radicalized as a result of events in 1978 and the now escalated all-out-war between them and the city. They build a “bunker” on the roof of a house, which the police keep referring to as some sort of a “tactical advantage,” though one would be hard pressed to see that in a structure more akin to a ramshackle wood cabin. They set up speaker systems and harass the neighbors by blaring messages day and night—as one neighbor ruefully points out, “we are pawns, caught in between.” On May 13th, 1985, the police and Philadelphia’s first black mayor, Wilson Goode, move in on the group. What happens next is unfathomable—after dropping explosives on the roof of the house and water-cannoning it for days (a water cannon drops thousands of gallons of water *a minute*) and pumping tear gas, a 10 story high blaze erupts. This is when we get to the most macabre quote of the film: “There was a decision to let the fire burn.”
Let The Fire Burn does not offer any explanations for how things went so cataclysmically out of control, but MOVE’s story is as relevant today as it was two decades ago. How a city could wage war against its own citizens and endanger the lives of adults and children with so little consideration is shocking but also not as outlandish of a possibility as one would think, the film shows. The painful public self-appraisal Philadelphia went through in the aftermath of the tragedy was necessary, yet the audience is able to understand how the perfect storm of truculent politics precipitated volatility and ensuing violence of immeasurable magnitude.