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Movie Review

‘Let the Fire Burn’: City of Brotherly Love in flames

Police on a roof as fire rages in documentary “Let the Fire Burn,” about the 1985 assault on the separatist urban commune MOVE.

Sam Psoras/Zeitgeist Films

Police on a roof as fire rages in documentary “Let the Fire Burn,” about the 1985 assault on the separatist urban commune MOVE.

Though other iniquities, such as the Rodney King beating in 1991 that sparked rioting in Los Angeles and the FBI destruction of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, in 1993, have since eclipsed it, the Philadelphia police assault on the separatist urban commune MOVE came as a shocker in 1985. A siege of the group’s headquarters ended in a fire that killed 11 people, including five children. Though horrifying, the events eventually faded into obscurity. In his eloquent, evenhanded, and meticulously constructed debut documentary, Jason Osder stirs the ashes of this tragedy and sheds new heat and light on such timely issues as the abuse of authority and the violation of the rights of citizens, especially the marginalized and powerless.

Osder maintains a sense of objectivity and immediacy in this account by avoiding such intrusive devices as voice-over narration, talking heads, or interviews with participants, limiting his narrative to occasional terse intertitles. Instead he relies exclusively on primary sources such as taped legal depositions, videos of committee investigations, and eyewitness television news reports. This seeming patchwork of evidence results in a slow buildup of coherence and clarity leading to a devastating resolution.

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“Fire” begins seemingly in medias res, with a video of the deposition of a frightened-looking African-American kid, Michael Moses Ward, 13, the only child to survive the conflagration, about the fatal attack on the MOVE headquarters. “Do you know what happens to people who lie?” Ward is asked. “They get hurt,” the boy replies.

For Osder, the search for truth begins in 1976, when MOVE was established as a quasi-revolutionary movement that combined New Age-y enlightenment, grass-roots empowerment, and Jonestown-like fanaticism. Though most of the members were African-American, the group’s cause was more ideological than racial.

From the start they did not endear themselves to the municipal authorities, or their neighbors, with their secretive ways and threatening rhetoric. An ongoing confrontation with the city authorities escalated into a siege of the MOVE headquarters. To end the standoff, police dropped a bomb on the roof of the compound, igniting a fire. As the flames mounted, firefighters stood by and watched, heeding the police commissioner’s order to “let the fire burn.”

In the subsequent investigation, as the video record shows with cringe-inducing clarity, all those involved passed the buck or made statements contradicted by the evidence that Osder has mustered. One policeman, however, deviated from the rest, testifying that he disobeyed orders in order to rescue Ward from the flames.

That brave cop would regret it. While the police department and city officials were reprimanded but not charged, he went back to work to find the note “[expletive] lover” taped to his locker. He’d leave the force shortly thereafter.

Contradicting the DA’s warning to Ward, the people who told the truth were hurt, and those who lied were rewarded. This documentary is one step to making that right.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.
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