Jason Osder’s riveting political documentary “Let The Fire Burn” reconstructs the events leading up to the Philadelphia police bombing of MOVE headquarters and the resulting cataclysm. Despite the passage of decades, the film’s record of the clashes between MOVE and the Philadelphia police raises disturbing questions about systemic racism and a society’s relationship to its dissident cultures.
MOVE was a Philadelphia-based black power organization formed in 1974 by a man who renamed himself John Africa. (Osder makes the minor mistake of not explaining what the acronym stands for.) At its start, it aimed to be a progressive political organization. Some of its principles were laudable such as eliminating societal divisions by encouraging interracial marriage and encouraging a back to nature ethos. Yet MOVE’s semi-pagan principles were expressed in such practices as feeding raw food to children and limiting its use of technology to such things as automobiles and telephones.
Philadelphia may bill itself as the City of Brotherly Love. Yet during the reigns of Mayors Frank Rizzo and Wilson Goode as well as police commissioner Gregor Sambor, love was certainly not something white police officers necessarily extended to the black community. The found footage used in Osder’s film doesn’t actually catch a white Philadelphia cop using racist epithets. But seeing footage of MOVE member Delbert Africa being savagely beaten by several cops during his arrest and later learning that the cops involved in that incident were found not guilty by a jury gives viewers a sense of Philadelphia’s racial dividing lines at that time.
That footage of Africa’s beating provides just one of “Let The Fire Burn”’s infuriating moments. But it’s not the only bit of found footage used in the film. In fact, the entire film is constructed out of footage coming from such sources as Philadelphia TV news reports, the public inquiry into the police bombing, and, most compellingly, the video deposition of Michael Moses Ward aka Birdie Africa. Birdie was one of the two survivors from that 1985 bombing of MOVE’s headquarters.
By relying solely on found footage, Osder carefully avoids taking sides in the clashes between MOVE and the Philadelphia P.D. Rather than create the false equivalence that’s current standard operating procedure in mainstream news reporting, the director forces viewers to draw their own conclusions about the events that led up to the bombing of MOVE’s Osage Avenue locale.
Prior to the fateful bombing, the Philadelphia P.D. had a long history of harassing the black power organization. MOVE’s 141 demonstrations got accompanied by 193 arrests. In one notorious 1976 incident, a welcome back from jail event for MOVE members led to 6 members getting arrested and a MOVE baby dying without the police being held accountable. The police harassment got so bad that MOVE members are seen doing courtroom rehearsal sessions where they could at least have the organization’s voice heard unmediated.
Certainly the mainstream news coverage seen in Osder’s film supported the police’s actions and was marked by a profound absence of pro-MOVE viewpoints. Only a student documentary attempts to treat MOVE sympathetically, but even that film fails to shake the impression of a group of good-hearted eccentrics.
Then again, MOVE could be its own worst enemy when it came to playing nice with its neighbors. Councilman Lucien Blackwell, a MOVE supporter, was shocked to hear from the group’s black neighbors that MOVE took a George W. Bush “with us or against us” attitude towards them. Having a loudspeaker at the Osage Avenue headquarters regularly blare profanity and threats also did little to build neighborly goodwill.
Despite a reference to MOVE as a cult, nobody mentions the not too distant tragedy at Jonestown in the film’s footage. Yet did Philadelphia citizens wonder if MOVE’s guiding spirit John Africa was their city’s version of People’s Temple founder Jim Jones?
Philadelphia’s cops could hardly be called an honest protector of its citizenry from an alleged terrorist organization. There was the aforementioned history of racism in the city’s police force. Police suspicions that MOVE had stockpiled explosives are never supported by any publicly presented evidence.
Judging from the footage presented, it’s likely the fatal shooting of an Officer Rump during a 1978 police blockade of the then MOVE HQ pushed Philadelphia’s police into blood feud mode. Having nine MOVE members convicted for that crime seemed a prelude to the May 12, 1985 police bombing.
The second half of Osder’s film covers the events that led to the police dropping a satchel containing four pounds of high-grade explosives onto the roof of MOVE’s Osage Avenue headquarters, as well as the explosion’s aftermath. The cops may have been there legally to evict MOVE from the building for harassing the neighbors and building a homemade “bunker” with what looked like gun slits. But such tactics as having 10,000 bullets fired at the MOVE headquarters and a failure to pass along Mayor Goode’s order to contain the fire resulting from the explosion raises reasonable suspicions that Police Commissioner Gregore Sambor wanted as few MOVE members to survive the “eviction” as possible.
These suspicions are buttressed by damning footage artfully edited by Nels Bangerter. Audio from a police stakeout unit watching the MOVE house fire cheer the fire on. Police claims of having to shoot a MOVE member allegedly carrying a rifle are juxtaposed with Ward’s testimony that the man in question was carrying a monkey wrench. One of the officers at the bombing was also involved in beating Delbert Africa.
Yet nothing damning is provable. The police officers seen at the public inquiry do not break their general story that their actions were reasonable. No camera footage exists of the events in the back alley of the MOVE headquarters. That’s little comfort in assigning culpability for a fire that wound up killing 11 MOVE members and destroying 61 homes.
(“Let The Fire Burn” opens November 1, 2013 at the Opera Plaza Cinemas (601 Van Ness Avenue, SF). For further information on the film, go to www.landmarktheaters.com