Let the Fire Burn is composed entirely with archival footage yet unfurls with the tension of a thriller. Jason Osder’s documentary recounts the steps that led to a horrific tragedy on May 13, 1985, when a longtime feud between the city of Philadelphia and the controversial radical urban group MOVE came to a deadly climax.
Formed in 1972 as a “back to nature” commune by the charismatic leader John Africa, MOVE members took the same surname in honor of their ancestral homeland, wore their hair in dreadlocks, shunned technology, and promoted a diet of raw food. Grappling for a way to describe the group, reporters sometimes referred to MOVE as a “cult” and later as “terrorists.”
Living together in a home in West Philadelphia, MOVE’s unorthodox lifestyle lead to conflicts with neighbors and clashes with the police. In 1978, this resulted in deadly violence when officer James Ramp was killed in a shootout between police and MOVE members. Nine MOVE members were later convicted for this murder, although they maintained that Ramp was really killed by friendly fire. Eventually the MOVE members set up in a new home in the Cobbs Creek area of West Philadelphia, where tensions between neighbors, the city, and MOVE would reach a full boil. In 1985, after many complaints about broadcasts via loudspeaker as well as worries over health hazards, the city took action to evict the group from their row house, using force.
After a daylong battle in which the police used teargas, firehoses, and ultimately 10,000 rounds of ammunition in an attempt to remove MOVE members from their fortified home, authorities order military-grade explosives to be dropped on the house from a helicopter. News cameras captured the conflagration that quickly escalated — and resulted in the tragic deaths of eleven people (including five children) and the destruction of 61 homes. It was only later discovered that authorities decided to “let the fire burn.” Using only archival news coverage and interviews for a past in present tense approach, first-time filmmaker Osder has brought to life one of the most tumultuous and largely forgotten clashes between government and citizens in modern American history.
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