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Tribeca Film Festival Review: 'Let the Fire Burn' Is Powerfully & Masterfully Structured

by Zeba Blay
April 22, 2013 9:14 PM
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Let The Fire Burn

There are moments of tragedy that seem to spring out of nowhere and hold us glued to our television screens 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.

There have been many documentaries comprised entirely out of archival footage, but few as powerfully and masterfully structured as this one. Weaving together field news reports, a 70s documentary about MOVE, and recorded tapes of the subsequent public committee hearings and depositions that took place months after the incident, Osder creates a visually textured and fascinating piece of storytelling that steers clear of editorialization and manipulation by allowing the content to speak for itself.

Perhaps the most powerful moments in the film happen in the deposition of 13-year-old Michael Moses Ward, one of only two people to make it out of the doomed house alive. Soft-spoken and dazed, Michael, known as “Birdie” Africa during his days in the house, serves as the perfect representation and constant reminder that wrapped up in the political cloud that surrounded the MOVE organization and its dealings with authorities, were children who, as pointed out by the examiner, were innocent and blameless in the entire affair.

By the final moments of Let the Fire Burn, there are hints of corruption and negligence on both sides, but there is still no concrete answer to the questions we always ask to make sense of tragedy and terror.

But more important than the hows or the whys, indeed the most important thing about the documentary, is the question of what makes incidents like these, so widely followed and scrutinized when they happen, so utterly forgotten later on.

Zeba Blay is a Ghanaian-born film and culture writer based in New York. She is a regular contributor to Huffington Post, Africa Style Daily, and Slant Magazine. She runs a personal movie blog, Film Memory, and co-hosts the podcast Two Brown Girls. Follow her on Twitter @zblay.

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  • lilk | May 18, 2014 2:09 AMReply

    i just watched this doc. I enjoyed it. I had NEVER heard of the MOVE Africa group nor the bombing. I cant believe it was thought ok to drop a bomb on US citizens on US soil!

  • horn | December 27, 2013 3:34 PMReply

    Sheesh....'run-ins with the law,' is a shameful way to describe killing a police officer in the line of duty.

  • Sab | September 5, 2013 7:39 AMReply

    I think it's crazy that something can be forgotten in less than 20 years even though this apparently got a lot of coverage.

  • Laura | April 23, 2013 5:32 PMReply

    Big big props to the editor, Nels Bangerter, who's storytelling skills are due equal credit for what resulted in a film "powerfully and masterfully structured"...especially a film entirely created in the edit room. It's a shame critics don't acknowledge this in documentaries in general.

  • Nels B. | April 24, 2013 9:49 PM

    Thanks Laura and John! We editors are used to flying under the radar, so it's great when we get a chance to work on a movie where our craft is front & center. Jason has always been generous with acknowledging my role, and the Edited By credit is a point of strong pride among us documentary folks, but yeah, if reviewers name-checked me too, I wouldn't be disappointed. Regardless, thanks to you both for watching, noticing, and glad you appreciated the work we poured into telling this story.

  • John Ellis | April 23, 2013 8:19 PM

    Osder should share the director credit with Bangerter. This is a real editor's film - too much to ignore his contribution to a film where no production was involved .

  • Curtis | April 23, 2013 10:12 AMReply

    Was at the press screening this past weekend too and had to work hard to hold back some tears (pure ego, was sitting amongst peers). The way Black folks are treated in this country, especially by law enforcement/overseers is intolerable. Like the first commenter here said though, this isn't even counted as terrorism - as it was city sanctioned. The best parts for me, outside of Birdie's video testimony and the MOVE doc you mentioned, were the testimony from John Africa's (the leader of MOVE) sister and, if I remember correctly, wife or lover. Those sisters were fierce and ardent.

    Combined with THE CENTRAL PARK FIVE, this is another documentary released in the past six months that every Black person in America should see. Shame though that both are directed and produced by white men & women, and will receive more attention because of that.

  • Bill | April 23, 2013 7:02 PM

    Correction to previous comment: racial* differentiation

  • Bill | April 23, 2013 12:22 PM

    Why does it matter if a white man directed this film? Shouldn't men and women of all color be able to make any film without being criticized for their own race? Shame though that your comment ironically adds to gender differentiation and will receive more attention because of that.

  • Africameleon | April 23, 2013 3:20 AMReply

    Thank you for this post. This makes me think about this weeks bombing in Boston, and how white citizens (New Englanders especially) rally around each other when "attacked by terrorists/outsiders." All week I've watched news coverage of the victims, the alleged perpetrators, the police, fire fighters, affected communities, and authorities. And I had to ask: where is Black Boston? I have MANY relatives that live in Roxbury and the Greater Boston area. But I saw and have seen no signs of Black Boston - at all. And I rarely see black Bostonians in news footage. I remember seeing documentaries of the school busing initiatives in the 70s, and seeing the riots, police brutality, and anti-black back lash that resulted.

    The bombing of the Africa House in Philly, doesn't even fall under "terrorism" but that's exactly what it is. Those people were targeted and terrorized, and eventually murdered by the state. I shows who gets to be "the victim." We don't get to be victims and we don't get to share in collective tragedies like Boston.

  • BluTopaz | April 23, 2013 10:46 PM

    "We don't get to be victims " Thank you for bringing this up re; the Boston tragedy, and national crisis in general in America. Remember during Katrina the Whites carrying merchandise from stores were labeled as hurricane survivors/victims, etc, while Blacks wading through the same waist deep mud water clearly carrying diapers, water and food somehow became looters or even worse, refugees (the media never explained how one is a refugee in their own country). It's maddening, and a doc like Let The Fire Burn brings it all to the forefront.

  • Aaron | April 23, 2013 8:10 AM

    We're invisible people when it comes to terrorism and traegedy.

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