Let The Fire Burn documents an American holocaust
A documentary by Jason Osder. Unrated.
A horror show from America’s recent history is re-created entirely through archival footage, with Let the Fire Burn provoking some unsettling thoughts about where so-called civilization is headed.
This superbly edited film centres on a 1985 event in which the city of Philadelphia mustered its resources to oust MOVE, a black-activist group, from its inner-city home. When 10,000 rounds of ammunition didn’t do the job, police dropped a military-grade bomb on the place. Results? Sixty-one houses burned to the ground and 11 MOVE members, including five children, shot and/or turned to ash.
Through news footage, contemporary docs and, most remarkably, clean footage of a subsequent public inquiry, academic-turned-filmmaker Jason Osder details events leading up to this cataclysm, leaving the blame squarely on the shoulders of civic leaders who cruelly abused their power. It’s also clear that these experimenters in simplified communal living—they wore dreadlocks and went by the family name of Africa—did little to avoid increasingly violent confrontations with authority.
When the group was established, in 1972, urban officials were almost all white, as exemplified by mayor Frank Rizzo, an old-school hard-ass who characterized the skewed progressives as subhuman. He escalated police harassment throughout the decade, encouraging more volatile and profanity-laced responses—the small group eventually alienated most of its African-American neighbours—and instigated or faked MOVE violence in order to justify a 1978 raid that ended with the death of one policeman and the stage set for conflagration seven years later.
By then, Philadelphia’s first black mayor had taken over; if anything, Wilson Goode was an even more careless dabbler of dangerous brinksmanship. (The film’s title quotes the mayor’s reaction to the fast-spreading holocaust.) U.S. government agencies apparently morphed this lesson into bigger, Waco-level disasters. And despite the potentially purgative drama of seeing participants facing each other in a courtlike setting, it’s disheartening to learn that no charges were ever laid against the bullies who turned the City of Brotherly Love into an aftershock of slavery, and a distant outpost of Vietnam.