Having spent most of my life in the Philadelphia area I was pretty shocked and appalled at my complete ignorance on the subject of Jason Osder’s powerful documentary Let the Fire Burn. Those living in the city in 1985 will likely remember it well, but probably haven’t talked about it or thought about it in years. Which is the exact reason Osder’s documentary is a necessary entry not only in the annals of Philadelphia history, but of American history as well.
The film chronicles the events leading up to the violent standoff between the black liberation group, MOVE, and the Philadelphia Police Department in May of 1985. Utilizing documentary and found footage only, Osder manages to portray the compelling story of two organizations incapable of compromise and, in many respects pure reason, that led to nearly a dozen people killed (including 5 children) and 60 homes destroyed. The footage included in the documentary is nothing sort of amazing. In a time before prolific 24-hour news coverage and sanitized camera shots, the news correspondents are largely seen floating out in a no man’s land, with gun fire erupting on live television mere feet away from their broadcast post and sending them flying for cover. There’s even clear footage of the bomb police dropped on the house on Osage Ave in an effort to remove MOVE members from the building. I’m reminded of the coverage of the recent bombings in Boston, where cameras were positioned well away from the final standoff between Tsarnaev and police, and when he was finally taken into custody we could barely make out the man on the stretcher that brought an entire section of Boston to a standstill.
As raw as some of the news footage is however, it’s the recordings of the investigative commission that Mayor Wilson Goode appointed in November of 1985 and the testimony of Birdie Africa, the only child survivor of the confrontation, that are the most telling. As the commission progresses, and former members of MOVE and police officers on duty that day in May begin talking, it’s clear that each side is too gifted in the art of political word-smithing for there to ever be a clear understanding of the exact events of the day. MOVE may have been a radical group that antagonized police and harassed their fellow neighbors, but there is no amount of explanation that can justify city officials allowing a fire to continue to blaze on a cramped city street with young children at risk. Osder and editor Nels Bangerter do a truly amazing job cutting together testimony in an attempt to get at the truth of the matter. In the end, it’s Birdie Africa that is the reason and heart of this film.
I was skeptical at first of Osder’s decision to omit interviews he had recorded recently with an adult Michael Moses Ward (Birdie Africa) and others, but the archival footage really speaks for itself. Without forcing the matter, there are complexities in the film on the subjects of race and politics that on the surface appear unique to the landscape of Philadelphia. Yet Jason Osder has created a film that can, and should, be used as a case study in the teaching of social justice around the world.
Let the Fire Burn opens today at the Ritz Bourse.