Overview: Years of conflict between a communal Black Liberation group, its neighbors, and the city of Philadelphia came to a head with disastrous consequences in 1985. Zeitgeist Films; 2013; NR; 88 minutes.
Long-Simmering Conflict: America in the 1970s was a particularly movement-driven time, with the idealism of the 60s giving way to a new righteous pragmatism. Determinism was out, and self-determination, often in the form of conscious and strategic organizing, was in. It was in this context that MOVE was was founded in 1972. Led by the charismatic leader John Africa, MOVE was a separatist collective of largely Black young people who lived communally and espoused a hard-to-categorize philosophy emphasizing a return to the natural world. Their headquarters was a home in West Philadelphia, in a dense, blue-collar neighborhood. Initially their lifestyle was largely accepted in the neighborhood as harmless, if eccentric, but that soon changed. Conflicts with neighbors led to increasingly volatile relations with the police that escalated first to a 1978 shootout, and ultimately, to an armed standoff on May 13, 1985. The way the police chose to end the conflict was swift, forceful, and highly controversial. The events of that day and the controversy that followed form the narrative backbone of this meticulous and often riveting documentary.
Sifting Through the Rubble: Let the Fire Burn tells its story simply, without narration and with only a few title cards to orient you. Filmmaker Jason Osder uses a mixture of raw footage, interviews, and testimony, much of it pulled directly from the televised public hearings of the Philadelphia Special Investigation Commission, created by the city’s mayor in an attempt to make sense of the bombing. For those civic-minded or bored enough to have watched city council meetings on public access, these proceedings might at first seem empty procedural theater, toothless and ineffectual. But with such an emotionally charged event, instead the film captures moments of raw anger, bold truth-telling and surprisingly vulnerable exchanges between witnesses and those on the commission to which they’re reporting. Osder’s editing decisions and narrative framing choices are masterful, ensuring the tension is palpable on film, even more than 30 years later. Your only respite is an occasional shift to news footage but even those, so often featuring children, offer few moments to breathe deeply. Even if you don’t know the story beforehand, the title is enough to let you guess how this will end.
At the end of the documentary, we learn the more about the very real consequences the neighborhood, police, and MOVE members dealt with in the months and years after May 13. While not played for sensationalism, there are several gasp-worthy reveals. This is a film that sheds light on an event largely forgotten outside of Philadelphia, and while it doesn’t offer answers it brings up critical questions. May marks an anniversary of the event, the 32nd. Not a landmark date by any means, but still significant when the scars haven’t yet fully healed. Let the Fire Burn—with all the wounds it re-opens and its grime that shows in the light—proves that sometimes the closest we can come to a palliative remedy to pain is an honest reckoning. In this way, it does its duty honorably.
Overall: The availability of extensive archival footage is a treasure for the documentary filmmaker, but while its exclusive use here is intentional and respectful, the viewer might yearn for more—more context, more texture, more to hold on to. However, Let the Fire Burn is a brave and clear-eyed, if sometimes dry, look at the events that took the lives of 11 people (five of them children), left more than 250 people homeless and permanently altered the emotional and physical landscape of Philadelphia.
Let the Fire Burn is available for streaming rental on iTunes and Amazon Video
Featured Image: Zeitgeist Films