Jason Osder’s potent documentary Let the Fire Burn is an account of a police raid on a Philadelphia cult headquarters in 1985, and falls into the category of “archival documentaries” or “archival vérité.” It joins a recent trend in such films – including The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, Senna and Our Nixon – which rely entirely on old footage edited in a new context. The effect is a kind of double vision, as what people saw and knew then is refracted through the prism of what we know now.
In the case of Let the Fire Burn, we see the rhetoric of 1980s American values, the justification of using overwhelming force against perceived terrorists without regard to collateral damage and the foreshadowing of the Trayvon Martin case with the killing of black people in the name of white security. A dozen years in the making by Osder, a George Washington University professor, Let the Fire Burn explores the events of May 13, 1985, when the police attacked the west Philadelphia row house that was home to black liberation group MOVE.
A religious commune built around leader John Africa (a.k.a. Korean War vet Vincent Leaphart), the mostly African-American group favoured animal rights and vegan diets, and promoted revolution. Judging by the testimony we hear from Africa’s sisters, LaVerne Sims and Louise James, MOVE members were full of bizarre ideas. Whether they were actually violent before being confronted by police is an issue debated by people within the film. But after members annoyed their neighbours by yelling obscenities through megaphones, letting their children run naked and unschooled and engaging in confrontations with police that left a cop and a six-week-old baby dead, there were calls for authorities to take action.
In 1985, the police decided to clear MOVE out using tear gas. Who shot first is in dispute, but who shot most isn’t. Four weapons, none of them automatic, were recovered from the house. The police ran out of ammunition after firing 10,000 rounds. After several hours, the police made the decision to drop an FBI-supplied bomb in a satchel from a helicopter onto the roof of the row house. That led to a conflagration that one TV reporter at the time described as “10 stories high.” Eleven people, including five children, were killed. The police commissioner opted to “let the fire burn” in defiance of orders from the mayor’s office, enabling the destruction of approximately 60 other houses.
Osder and his editor, Nels Bangerter, were able to tap into a substantial archive at Temple University, assembled by an investigatory commission appointed by Philadelphia mayor Wilson Goode after the bombing. He also acquired a documentary film made by MOVE, and a trove of television footage from the time, which means there’s a wealth of perms and Anchorman-style mustaches to watch. But moral dilemma draws the viewer into the historical moment.
Brilliantly edited, the film moves back and forth in time, first tracking the events leading up to the confrontation through news reports of the day. Then it follows a commission struck five months after the attack to find out why the police decided to bomb a house where children were known to reside, resulting in the devastation of a neighbourhood. It was a decision, as we see from the political speeches and campaign slogans of the time, that seems less rooted in citizen safety than in racial fears and law-and-order politics.
Beyond the use of intertitles and a musical score, the only rhetorical trick here is to weave the film around a video deposition by then-13-year-old Michael Moses Ward, a.k.a. Birdie Africa, one of two residents in the MOVE house to survive the attack. At the time of the deposition, Ward had never been to a proper school. When asked if he knows the consequences of lying to officials, he answers softly, “You get hurt?”
History has overtaken some details of the film, which ends with the postscript that Ward became a long-distance trucker. Left out is the fact that Ward shared in more than $840,000 in compensation and was awarded $1,000 a month for life in a court settlement with the Philadelphia mayor’s office, and he later joined the army. The movie was finished before Ward died this past September, apparently of accidental drowning in a hot tub on a cruise ship, 28 years after escaping death from the police bomb.