The first thing we see is a child, small for his age. He sits quietly as a kindly man speaks to him about the camera that films them. This is a deposition, we learn. The boy is told only that he must tell the truth.
Do you know what happens when people don’t tell the truth?, he is asked.
He responds: They get hurt.
On May 13, 1985, a lot of people got hurt, and eleven–six adults and five children–were killed when Philadelphia police dropped an incendiary device on the headquarters of a Black radical organization known as MOVE. Only two people inside the bombed house survived (among them Birdie Africa, the boy being deposed). 65 homes were destroyed in the fire that resulted.
Jason Osder’s 2013 documentary is about Truth, though it doesn’t presume to know it. The film explores the catastrophe using period footage culled from news reports, press briefings, and the investigation that followed the disaster. The film does not offer its players the benefit of hindsight. There are no director/eyewitness interviews. No one returns to comment Thirty Years Later, and that is Osder’s master stroke. This is a documentary that plays like an objective evidence reel, with the audience left to weigh each piece and make its own decisions.
The dominant trend in current documentary films is for the filmmaker to pick an issue, choose a side, and cherry-pick the information presented so the audience leaves the theater nodding in agreement. Michael Moore, Morgan Spurlock, and Alex Gibney have made a lot of money with this formula, though the number of viewers they’ve converted is debatable. Some films of this type can be entertaining, even powerful, but they play like a march toward a pre-determined idea. Let the Fire Burn chooses complexity over confirmation, to its everlasting credit.
MOVE began as a back-to-nature group, centered around the ideas and leadership of John Africa. They believed that technology hindered life, and they did not use electricity or seek modern conveniences. Their radical stances–like tearing out the sidewalks in front of their home–led to conflict with the neighbors. Soon, the police were involved. And that’s where stories diverge.
Society trains us to process information as a series of binary choices–good/bad, right/wrong. Most films would push you toward one side or the other, either MOVE or the police. Instead, what’s obvious from watching Oster’s movie is that neither group was pure. Organizations are no better or worse than their members. Like individuals, they are imperfect, prone to poor choices, and often irrational.
In the years leading up to the disaster. MOVE members were often arrested. Their home was raided. One was beaten by a group of police officers (who were subsequently acquitted). They owned weapons and brandished them on the roof of their building, but they claimed this was solely in response to police harassment. They believed this attention was a direct result of their political activism, the angry response of an establishment that represented spiritual death.
But there were ugly rumors about MOVE. There were stories of malnourished children, of threats to the community. They broadcast obscene rants over a speaker system, cursing the world. Residents worried about the group’s history of violence. And there were homemade steel-plated bunkers on the roof, which raised the stakes considerably. In 1978, a police officer died during a shootout with MOVE. Nine members went to prison, though they claimed he died from friendly fire.
By 1985, there could be no compromise. Each side saw the other as a manifestation of societal sickness.
So how do you remove armed people from a building without bloodshed? When there are children inside? Everyone in Philadelphia’s government knew this wouldn’t end well. (District Attorney Ed Rendell acknowledged that he realized someone would die during the police action, though he wasn’t sure on which side the victim would be.) The city ordered the neighbors to evacuate and a day-long standoff ensued.
There’s a lot to untangle here. Systemic racism, the cult-like nature of MOVE, situational ethics, police brutality. Who’s lying? What is each witness’ motivation? Who is at fault?
Some of you have probably already made up your mind based solely on this essay. Maybe you’re a law and order type, the kind of person who thinks that the police should be able to shoot a non-violent suspect who attempts to flee. Or maybe you think the government is hopelessly corrupt and the police are an instrument of oppression.
Let the Fire Burn, in its dogged refusal to provide clear-cut answers, points toward something more horrifying than crazy revolutionaries or corrupt cops. What if both things are true? What if MOVE provoked a standoff through their dangerous behavior, and the Philadelphia police–furious and scared after their colleague’s death–wanted them to die? This is not an either/or situation. This is messy and brutal and challenging. Real life usually is.