By Daniel Barnes
Jason Osder’s powerful and disturbing Let the Fire Burn is part of a new wave of media collage documentaries that also includes Brett Morgen’s July 17, 1994 and Penny Lane’s Our Nixon. Rather than offer comforting talking-head context or forcing an agenda down our throats, these multimedia-age stories get told through an assemblage of clips from the period. The effect is more immediate and immersive, and certainly refreshing after a long string of ego-tripping “message” docs, but it is also a necessary form for a film where the only “good guys” are powerless and ineffective.
Let the Fire Burn tells a largely forgotten story of abusive cops battling domestic terrorists in the neighborhoods of Philadelphia. In 1985, after a decade of confrontations that left one police officer dead (a single murder that resulted in nine convictions), the city of Philadelphia moved to evict the combative MOVE organization from their headquarters in a mostly black blue-collar neighborhood. After firing over 10,000 rounds of ammunition into a building that contained children, the police dropped a C4 explosive on the roof. The cops allowed the resulting fire to burn for so long that it killed 11 people and reduced the neighborhood to rubble.
However, Let the Fire Burn does not serve as a tear-streaked elegy for MOVE. Despite the unfair and abusive treatment at the hands of the cops, the group was clearly a cult-like public nuisance determined to force a confrontation with the city. Of course, the police were far more willing to engage them in residential shock-and-awe than in diplomacy, and without overstating its case, Let the Fire Burn shows how police tend to respond to problems in black neighborhoods with either overwhelming violent force or not at all.
The film is structured around the investigative process of a citizen commission hearing held several months after the 1985 incident, as well as the aftermath of protests and police abuse. This process was considered so essential to civic harmony that it got broadcast on television with surprisingly high production values. As we listen to corrupt cops, still-delusional ex-MOVE members, and innocent bystanders, Let the Fire Burn becomes a sort of queasy whodunit, and we watch in sickening horror as the inevitable perversion of justice unfurls before us.
At the beginning of the film, we see a flame-scarred child named Birdie, one of the only two survivors of the fire, getting sworn in for a deposition. When he gets asked what happens to people who don’t tell the truth, he replies, “They get hurt.” The brilliance of Jason Osder’s documentary lies in the way that it both confirms and undermines that child-like notion. A multiracial commission of level-headed and respected citizens convened and carried out its charge with dignity and intelligence. That’s inspiring, but this “public self-appraisal,” which found the police, fire department, and Mayor to be negligent, did not result in a single conviction. The only people who get hurt are the ones whose entire lives go up in flames.