There are moments of tragedy that seem to spring out of nowhere and hold us glued to our television screens and computer monitors, watching a disturbing and bewildering mini drama play out in real time, like something out of a movie. But it isn’t a movie, it’s real life, and when all is said and done, we ask ourselves the same chorus of questions: how, and why, and what is it we’re supposed to gain from all the carnage when it’s over?
It’s this process of trying to understand that lies at the center of director Jason Osder’s debut documentary feature, Let the Fire Burn. The film tells the story of the mostly forgotten events of May 13, 1985, when 11 members of the black liberation group MOVE died after a 24-hour standoff with Philadelphia police. Founded by group leader John Africa, the organization practiced a “back-to-earth” lifestyle, swearing off all technology, eating only raw foods, and changing all of their surnames to “Africa.”
By 1985, the group’s previous run-ins with the law (they had at different points been deemed a cult and a terrorist organization due to their past use of firearms) came to a head when neighbors in the Cobbs Creek area of Philadelphia filed complaints of health hazards, child neglect, and harassment. Neighbors were evacuated, and on the approval of the mayor, police and fire commissioners, a bomb was dropped on the roof of the row house that served as MOVE headquarters. And while there were later claims that the mayor had instructed police to put out the blaze, a decision was ultimately made to “let the fire burn.”
What happened next was the destruction of over sixty homes, and the deaths of six adults and five children in the MOVE house, the youngest only a toddler…
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