BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Jason Osder’s debut film, “Let the Fire Burn,” is a powerful documentary about the incidents leading up to and during the violent confrontation in 1985 between the MOVE organization and the Philadelphia police.
MOVE was founded in the 1970s as a mostly black, “back to nature,” quasi-Christian group. Like their leader, John Africa, MOVE’s members all took “Africa” as their last name. The young children went about naked or in loincloths, and members subsisted on a raw food diet. MOVE members broke up the sidewalk around their first building, seeking to get “closer to the earth.”
“Let the Fire Burn” documents the increasing tensions between MOVE and the Philadelphia Police Department, which culminated in a police helicopter dropping a bomb of plastic explosive on the group’s West Philadelphia building, sparking a raging inferno.
The blaze burned down the building, taking the lives of 11 MOVE members inside, including John Africa and five children. The fire spread, engulfing all the buildings in a three-block area, burning them down to the ground. Ironically, it was the mostly black working-class neighbors who had complained about MOVE, which had installed a P.A. system on the side of their building, from which they regularly berated the community with profanity-laced rants.
Osder’s film artfully weaves together archival material — including a TV news report from the scene of the final standoff (with reporters ducking for cover behind their van as bullets fly) as well as period interviews with MOVE members, their home movies and footage from a Philadelphia commission that held extensive public hearings on the incident.
There are many riveting characters here, from the gentle-eyed Birdie Africa (a young boy who was one of only two survivors of the blaze) to Police Commissioner Gregore Sambore, whose eyes move slowly and deliberately behind his tinted lenses while testifying before the commission. Ed Rendell, then Philadelphia district attorney who would become Pennsylvania’s governor, is another key commission witness.
Then-Mayor Wilson Goode, Philadelphia’s first black mayor, is shown in a news clip stating that he did authorize the bombing, to the extent that he knew it was going to happen. However, as to why the fire was allowed to keep burning, Goode offers a lame excuse, claiming that he thought he saw water being sprayed on the blaze — only to later realize that it was “snow” on his TV screen, as in poor reception.
Osder’s documentary is very well done, and really gives a sense — particularly through the commission testimony — of the passion MOVE members had for their movement, as well as what police, local politicians and clergy thought of the organization.
The film’s music is also very effective, swelling to a crescendo as the film reaches its end, making for a powerful emotional effect.
Among the audience at Sunday’s press screening of the movie was Dwight Casimere, an African-American newsman who covered the Patty Hearst kidnaping in San Francisco for WKGO TV.
“I think it was fantastically done,” he said of Osder’s film. “I think it was very thorough. It raised some very troubling questions about incidents today, about what happens with guns and in Boston — the issue of people stockpiling weapons and all of these disgruntled fringe groups.”
Casimere said he particularly felt for the neighbors whose homes were burned down, whose families had probably been living there for generations.
“I grew up in a neighborhood just like that in Chicago,” he said.
Ironically, he noted, “The hero of the movie was a cop.”
Directed by Jason Osder
Runtime: 93 minutes
Screening at the Tribeca Film Festival
4/24 at 3:45pm, at Clearview Cinemas Chelsea (260 W. 23rd St., btw. 7th & 8th Aves.)
4/25 at 10pm, at AMC Loews Village 7 (66 Third Ave., at 11th St.)
For tickets & info, call 646-502-5296 or visit tribecafilm.com/filmguide