Documentaries sometimes get a bad rap from cinephiles, and it’s not hard to see why. Everyone remembers the dreadfully dull docs they were forced to sit through in high school, and many of the titles out there today aren’t much better. An unfortunate amount are one-sided, deceitful, manipulative and just plain bad. Besides, no one really wants to go out to a theater and get lectured about this or that for an hour and a half. That’s not fun, and very few people do it intentionally. However, documentaries aren’t all bad. In fact, documentaries done right can be better than your average action thriller. I’d even take the stand that a movie capable of both educating and entertaining its audience is one of the best (and hardest to master) forms of cinema.
All of this brings me to Let the Fire Burn, one of the most involving and well-crafted documentaries I’ve ever seen. It tells a tough but important story, and it does so both with crackling tension and admirable restraint. Jason Osder’s searing, masterful doc focuses on the MOVE organization’s tragic clashes with Philadelphia police throughout the ’70s and ’80s.
MOVE started out as a “back to roots” organization that practiced loving the Earth and living green. However, its ideology soon became more militant, with vicious, profanity-laden speeches constantly emanating from their Osage Avenue compound and rumors of child abuse swirling. “Unless you did everything that they wanted you to do,” remarks City Councilman Lucien Blackwell during a deposition, “you were an enemy.” MOVE’s interactions with the Philadelphia police grew increasingly hostile, leading up to a 1978 incident in which a policeman was killed during a shootout. From there, the story gets far worse. The film focuses on the tragic events of May 13, 1985, when police dropped an explosive device on the MOVE compound and “let the fire burn,” according to Mayor Wilson Goode, in order to flush them out, creating an inferno that consumed 11 lives and 61 homes.
Osder neatly gets around the duller aspects of documentary filmmaking by cutting himself out of the picture. There are no talking head segments, no retrospective philosophical quandaries, nothing apart from archival footage. Osder weaves together public committee hearings, depositions, a student documentary and news reports, and in doing so he creates a truly gripping narrative. Any information that needs clarification is conveyed through non-intrusive captions, but Osder allows the footage to speak for itself.
What he presents is a story of blistering racial and religious tension, unwarranted aggression and tragedy both horrific and believable. There have been other documentaries delivered in this cinema-verite manner, but I can’t recall any of them feeling quite so urgent, compelling or smartly constructed. With the aid of his terrific editor Nels Bangerter, Osder drops us into Osage Avenue on that fateful day, allowing us to experience these events with their original speed and ferocity. It’s a spellbinding, incredibly effective trick.
Despite initial appearances, this isn’t just a story of racial tensions rising to a bloody crescendo, though elements of that are certainly at play. As MOVE’s back-to-nature ideology grew more extreme, they drew the ire of their neighbors (“normal black people,” says Blackwell) as well as the Philadelphia police and multiple mayors. Osder deserves credit for not taking a side, instead giving equal air-time to both the MOVE members and their opponents. Let the Fire Burn works precisely because it doesn’t presume to hold all of the answers; Osder is a historian, meticulously capturing every detail, not a faux-intellectual who claims to know “the truth.” Indeed, in an incident as charged and muddled as the 1985 bombing, there’s not a person alive who knows exactly what happened.
Instead, Osder suggests the questions through his careful compilation of the available footage. How was it that the police and mayor of Philadelphia were able to justify letting the fire burn? Why was MOVE so determined to force its opponents into a violent confrontation? And what of the innocents caught in the crossfire, like Michael Ward (known as Birdie Africa to his MOVE family), 13 at the time of the disaster? Let the Fire Burn allows us to draw our own conclusions, though indications of recklessness and corruption on both sides point to a grander picture of the inevitable tragedies that arise from such tangled disputes.
It’s stunning that a conflict of such consequence was ever forgotten, and it’s a true gift that Osder has managed to immortalize the incident with such a powerful, intelligent feat of filmmaking. Let the Fire Burn is the first great documentary of 2014.
Releases 2/18 on iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, Vudu, XBOX, PlayStation, Google Play, YouTube, and DVD (through Zeitgeist Films).
Let The Fire Burn is an incendiary documentary that uses archival footage to weave a compelling, all-important tale of tragedy bred from anger and misunderstanding.