Let the Fire Burn
Directed by Jason Osder
Opens at the Charles Dec. 13
Imagining the worst-case scenario, for many, is reassuring: It allows for planning, for bracing oneself, for calming down. When Philadelphia police were called in to deal with a handful of increasingly menacing members of the organization MOVE in 1985 and police told neighbors to evacuate their homes for a 24-hour period, people might have guessed what the worst-case scenario would be. The ultimate outcome, however, would be worse than imaginable, so much so that it's surreal. To delineate the catastrophic events that would culminate on May 13, 1985, director Jason Osder splices together found footage in the documentary Let the Fire Burn.
MOVE, a radical movement comprising mostly African-Americans, founded by Vincent Leaphart aka John Africa in the 1970s in Philadelphia, aspired to return to simpler times in many ways, eschewing most technology (though they did own cars and telephones). They mandated that their children would eat raw food (though adult members could eat cooked and processed food). They lived in a compound in Powelton Village, in West Philadelphia. A 1976 documentary shows them breaking up the concrete outside the space.
A clip from the same video shows a line of naked, dreadlocked children chanting in singsong: "I will not hallucinate, fantasize, speculate about my direction and I ain't gonna allow you to do so. Unless you are asking me to believe in that which is believable, have faith in that which is faithful, trust in that which is trustworthy. Our religion is non-compromising to the conception of insane speculation! Long live John Africa!"
Neighbors first complained about MOVE members, prompting police intervention. Housing inspectors were turned away. Over time the situation grew more hostile, with MOVE and the city growing more aggressive in their interactions. MOVE began standing guard outside the commune, brandishing guns. The city barricaded them inside the structure; supporters brought them supplies from outside. Hothead Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo declared that the city was going to drag MOVE out "by the backs of their necks."
The ensuing confrontation, on Aug. 8, 1978, plays out in Let the Fire Burn via news broadcasts and police stakeout videos. Groups of firefighters and police officers scattered when bullets began flying, but one officer, James Ramp, was killed in the fray. When MOVE members finally emerged from the basement of their house, some adults held naked children in front of them. One MOVE member, Delbert Africa, was brutally hit with a helmet, then kicked in the head repeatedly by three officers once he had surrendered-all captured on videotape.
The house was bulldozed on the day of the shootout. Nine MOVE members were convicted of third-degree murder for Officer Ramp's death; the three officers were acquitted of beating Delbert Africa. Osder wordlessly shows how these actions embittered MOVE, making a very bad situation worse.
Members of MOVE, including many of the children effectively orphaned by the conviction of the nine members, took up residence in Philadelphia's Cobbs Creek area in the first half of the 1980s, at 6221 Osage Ave. The neighborhood was a tight-knit, blue-collar community whose residents tended to their rowhouses regularly and who felt safe letting their children play outside.
It didn't take long for problems to start cropping up. MOVE composted trash and excrement. They reportedly kept raw meat sitting in a tin vessel in the backyard. Next-door neighbors began to complain of vermin coming into their houses as a result of the state of MOVE's unit, but MOVE didn't believe in extermination-and physically threatened a neighbor who did. They boarded up their house's windows, built two bunkers on the roof, and installed loudspeakers on the front of the house. They would shout "motherfucker"-laced threats at all hours of the day. Again, police intervention was requested.
Many will remember the complete calamity and tragedy that then transpired, the events being the very definition of clusterfuck. Philadelphia police, its fire department, and its city officials, including black Mayor Wilson Goode, were implicated in the bombing of MOVE's 6221 Osage Ave. home in May of 1985.
Much of Let the Fire Burn's tape is taken from 1986 MOVE commission hearings, with interviews from then-District Attorney Ed Rendell, Mayor Goode, Police Commissioner Gregore Sambor, Osage Avenue residents, and various others. There is no narration whatsoever, only occasional titles, and no updated interviews. The film moves along at a captivating clip, accelerating in drama as it progresses.
Osder's found-footage compilation, edited neatly and compellingly, never suffers from its lack of traditional documentary trappings, but Let the Fire Burn is really a starting point for fully examining the dynamics and aftermath of the Osage Avenue catastrophe. Supplementary information abounds, and the film will send one to the internet, searching for more details. (The Philadelphia Inquirer has a detailed multimedia feature on MOVE that includes 2010 video interviews with Ramona Africa, Officer James Berghaier, and Fire Commissioner William Richmond.) Osder directs commendably, neither glorifying nor condemning MOVE with the movie's material, maintaining an impartial stance. He does well in making some sense of events that are completely unbelievable, and in making his audience ask: How could this happen, and could it ever happen again?