Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Let the Fire Burn

Even if you don't have a connection to Philadelphia, I think you'll find Jason Osder's MOVE-bombing documentary "Let the Fire Burn" completely captivating.

MOVE has been described as an "urban group" (I'm not sure what that means), a commune, and a religion, but it clearly comes within the definition of a cult. Nobody in the film - from MOVE members to detractors - is able to articulate a statement of its beliefs or mission beyond adherence to the rambling teachings of its founder, John Africa. After a 1978 confrontation with police that resulted in the death of a peace officer, MOVE relocated to a row house at 6221 Osage Ave. and proceeded to exasperate the neighborhood by broadcasting Africa's hateful and profane diatribes over a loudspeaker at all hours of the day and night. They turned the house into a kind of compound (recalling such cults as the Branch Davidians) and built a rooftop bunker complete with sniper holes.

After imploring MOVE members to vacate the house peacefully, city leaders (including mayor Wilson Goode, then-D.A. Ed Rendell, police commissioner Gregore Sambor, and fire chief William Richmond) evacuated their neighbors and, on May 13, 1985, commenced a daylong siege aimed at forcing them out. The siege began with water hoses, tear gas, and an exchange of gunfire, and culminated in the dropping of two one-pound bombs that triggered a fire that killed 11 of the 13 occupants and destroyed 60 surrounding homes. Osder takes his title from Goode's affirmative decision to let the fire burn, not to harm MOVE members but in hopes of destabilizing the bunker from which they were shooting. 

Osder began to make his film by conducting new interviews of participants and commentators, but wisely scrapped that concept in favor of a compilation of primary materials: newscasts from the day of the bombing, extensive footage from a public commission convened shortly afterward at which all of the key players testified, and the videotape deposition of the only child survivor, Michael Moses Ward (dubbed "Birdie Africa"), who last month drowned in a hot tub aboard a Carnival cruise. These firsthand documents lend an immediacy and rigor to the events in the film that proves more powerful than any contemporary contextualization. Though Goode was black and the impetus for police action came largely from the group's black neighbors, race simmers underneath the proceedings like a powder keg waiting to be lit. The primary interrogator asks Louise James, a MOVE member who was not involved in the incident, to explain the group's hatred for the system: "What do you mean by the system?" She looks him square in the eye and says, "You."

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