Let the Fire Burn is Filled with Passion and Fury but Not Nearly Enough Clarity


In the new documentary Let the Fire Burn, there’s never enough information. Director Jason Osder has pieced together from archival film clips the story of the radical Philadelphia–based urban group MOVE, and the 1985 bombing of its West Philadelphia headquarters by city police. The mostly white police force let the buildings burn to the ground, destroying a residential neighborhood and killing six MOVE members and five children, all African-American. Using footage from news coverage of the bombing and the public hearing that followed, videos made by MOVE sympathizers, and depositions from survivors, Osder conveys the force, anger, and passion of the MOVE members’ belief in their leader, John Africa, without quite articulating what they believed in. Members say that John Africa taught “absolute truth,” and the footage demonstrates that MOVE believed in happiness through simple communal living, without electricity or gas. Cryptic, too, are the answers of city police and officials about the exact choreography of individual incidents, possession of weaponry, and decision-making. Osder lets his subjects’ guarded speech and furious yet careful word choice convey the ambiguity of the intentions of both police and MOVE members, while highlighting disturbing dynamics of race, brutality, and privilege. The opening shots of the film, which are its clearest moment, are pulled from an interview with the one child survivor of the bombing, Michael Ward. The black interviewer asks him if he knows what happens when you lie. Michael pauses, then calmly responds: “People get hurt.”

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 2, 2013

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