When America Was Literally Insane: Let the Fire Burn 

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Let the Fire Burn
Directed by Jason Osder

It’s hard for people who weren’t there to understand—or even for those who were to remember—just how weird things got in the years from Nixon to Reagan, how violent the country became not (just) in terms of street muggings but of large-scale destruction. When a bomb exploded in Boston this spring, the post-9/11 populace was shocked and disturbed, not only by the loss of life and limb but also by the spectacle; but did you know “from January 1969 to October 1970, there were about 370 bombings—most of them minor—in New York, an average of more than one every other day,” as the Times reported in 2009? In the 80s, token booths were frequently set on fire with the clerks still inside; in the 70s, neighborhoods were essentially burned to the ground.

In Let the Fire Burn, director Jason Osder chronicles the history of the back-to-nature black-liberation group MOVE through the 70s into 1985, when Philadelphia police evicted the group from its home by essentially declaring war, burning down 61 homes on multiple blocks to get 13 people, half of them children, to leave one townhouse—the height of late-20th-century fire-and-explosives madness, this time wrought by the government itself, reenacting Vietnam in the birthplace of American democracy. Osder tells the story using only contemporaneous footage, intercutting (in a triumph of editing by Nels Bangerter) news reports, documentaries, depositions, student films, police recordings and, most notably, video from a post-fire commission hearing. He refuses us the easy outs of too much hindsight, of either romanticization or condemnation, instead bringing us into the radicalized and polarized times as though they were present-tense, creating a portrait of a country gone insane, from the people to the government. This is the story of madness meeting madness, of systematic American psychosis.

The West Philadelphia-based MOVE used a wood-burning stove and had no electricity, though it did have a telephone; its members preached simple living. (In one scene, when kids are asked what a lemon is, they say, “Life!” When asked what the camera filming them is, they shout, “Technology!” And what does that do? “Hurt!” )Many of its members speak like those in a cult, spouting folderol and empty jargon, as well as allegiance to their leader John Africa, whom one member compares to Jesus for his carpentry and his truth. Part of the lyrics of a song for children go, “Our religion is non-compromising to the conception of insane speculation.”

It wasn’t just stuffy white officials who butted heads with the group; other blacks often opposed them, middle-class Osage Avenue residents who asked the city to deal with issues of harassment, sanitation and child negligence. But the group also had serious problems with the police: during one raid, one of the group’s children was killed; in another, a police officer died (and nine MOVE members were convicted of his death); a MOVE member lying on the ground was repeatedly kicked in the head by different police officers, three of whom were charged and acquitted (though the incident was captured on video). District Attorney Ed Rendell, later the governor of Pennsylvania, called the group a terrorist organization. “We’re not terrorists,” one member said. “We fight cops.” This antagonism culminated in a siege on May 13, 1985, to which Osder dedicates half the film, tensely building up to the confrontation.

The final raid was an act of urban warfare conducted on a cleared-off battlefield: neighbors were evacuated, the street blockaded, and tear gas fired, SWAT teams put into place, and 10,000 rounds of ammunition rattled off at four men, three women, and six children who between them possessed four non-automatic firearms. But this initial assault, lasting hours, failed to drive them out. Fearing that a bunker on the roof gave MOVE a tactical advantage, the police commissioner accepted a suggestion from the bomb squad of dropping two pounds of military explosives on top of the house; the police force, apparently unaccustomed to confronting such an enemy, became hysterical, almost maniacal, in combatting it through the use of more-than-excessive force.

The bomb starts a fire that soon engulfs the house, and the decision that gives the movie its name is made by city officials, who horrifyingly allow 11 people—five kids, four men, and two women—to burn to death. The outrageousness of the action is underplayed by Osder, whose just-the-facts approach eschews sentimentality for the sharper sting of fundamental-humanity ignored. The film’s most painful moment comes during the subsequent hearing, when a clergyman asks one of the police officers present what might have been in the mind of a child who ran back into the burning building rather than go toward the cops; he answers you couldn’t imagine what those MOVE people might think, and the minister dresses him down. “I knew many of them by name,” he says. “I knew them as people”—maybe the last person in the crazy country capable of making such a distinction. 

Opens October 2

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