Building with the awful inexorability of Greek tragedy, Jason Osder’s riveting documentary “Let the Fire Burn” chronicles the escalating confrontations between the Philadelphia police and a back-to-nature African-American collective called Move. The conflict culminated in 1985 with the death of 11 Move members, six of them children, and the immolation of 61 homes in the surrounding black working-class neighborhood when police bombed the group’s fortified house. Drawing exclusively from contemporaneous found footage, Osder and editor Nels Bangerter fashion a mesmerizing account of how paranoid racism turns cultural differences into armed overkill. Further theatrical, educational and ancillary play should follow the pic’s initial run.
Osder culls film clips from a wide assortment of sources — a Move-approved documentary, raw news reports, political campaign ads and police debriefing films. Most significantly, tapes of an official commission held five months after the incident, “in the hopes of healing the wounds caused by the failure to resolve conflicting lifestyles in a peaceful way,” allow the filmmakers to move forward and backward in time, prefiguring events and/or creating suspense with none of the hindsight that would place this miscarriage of justice conveniently in the past.
Instead, the brilliantly edited tapestry of actions and reactions exposes a pattern of prejudice and fear capable of infinitely repeating itself. While members of the commission struggle to comprehend how things could have possibly gone so wrong, Osder lays out a sequence of reciprocal actions as police harassment, beatings and arrests under famously racist Philadelphia mayor Frank Rizzo lead to increasing resistance and militancy on the part of Move. An armed, bulldozer-led raid on a Move compound in the ’70s left an infant and a policeman dead and landed nine Move members in jail with 30- to 100-year sentences.
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Still, “Let the Fire Burn” remains remarkably balanced throughout, making no attempt to lessen or overdramatize either the cops’ racism or the stubbornly closed-off language of Move’s tautological rhetoric. Self-justifying testimony from a policeman before the commission stands in direct contradiction to the ingenuous, highly believable account of 13-year-old Birdie Africa, one of only two survivors of the conflagration.
On the other hand, sincere attempts to understand the basic tenets of Move’s beliefs unleash a torrent of hostile invective. It becomes clear that Move, with its constant barrage of obscene taunts (broadcast via loudspeakers), shotgun-carrying sentries and rooftop bunkers, served as a constant provocation to a family-oriented neighborhood. Osder’s documentary makes even clearer how an eviction order could morph into a full-scale attack, the police pouring an incredible 10,000 rounds of ammunition into a house full of women and children.
The ingeniously interwoven archival material compensates for whatever context may be lacking in Osder’s found-footage approach. Christopher Mangum’s wonderfully subtle score adds a critical dimension to the flow of unmediated imagery.