In 1985 there was a tragic stand-off between the extremist Africa-American group MOVE and the city of Philadelphia. At the end, 11 members of MOVE were killed, including five children, and 65 other houses in the area were burned down. It’s an ugly injustice right up there with Ruby Ridge and the siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco.
Let the Fire Burn chronicles these events, and director Jason Osder approaches them with an interesting formal conceit. He avoids talking heads and new interviews by only using footage from the past — news reports, older documentaries, a political hearing on the conflict. Apart from a little bit of text, there’s no other overt kind of contextualization. It’s a bit like an act of archival bricolage, or maybe we can use the term documentary assemblage/assemblage documentary.
Though it’s an interesting formal idea, it has its limits, and I think it works against Let the Fire Burn in a fundamental way even though it works well in others.
[This review was originally posted as part of our coverage of the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival. It has been reposted to coincide with the New York theatrical release of the film.]
Let the Fire Burn
Director: Jason Osder
Release Date: October 2nd, 2013 (New York)
First a little background on MOVE. MOVE was founded in 1972 by John Africa (real name Vincent Leaphart). It was a back-to-nature group that was at the very least cult-like if not a cult. MOVE was anti-technology since they felt that technology was the tool of the oppressors, and all the members took the surname “Africa” as a show of solidarity and pride.
MOVE proved a disruptive presence in Philadelphia on a number of occasions. From their house on Osage Ave., the site of the eventual 1985 stand-off, they’d shout profanity-laden screeds through a loud speaker. Footage shows the members of MOVE entering the house by ropes leading to the roof rather than through the front door. On the roof of the Osage house they’d constructed a bunker as if anticipating an eventual fight with city authorities. There was precedent for this. In the late 1970s, MOVE got into a conflict with the police that resulted in the death of an officer and the beating of a MOVE member.
The history of MOVE is part of the missing link in Osder’s documentary. Beyond the bare basics, we never really get a sense of what MOVE stood for, who John Africa was, and what he preached or taught. If the main focus of the documentary is the 1985 stand-off and how it’s a criminal act by the state government, then in some ways this contextualization of MOVE irrelevant, but even then, the picture of MOVE seems incomplete.
I think of the thoroughness of William Gazecki’s 1997 documentary Waco: The Rules of Engagement, which is a great examination of the Branch Davidian tragedy. Though in the case of Gazecki’s film, he didn’t restrict himself to the use of just archival footage. In addition to available video and audio resources, there are interviews with survivors of the stand-off, law enforcement officials, government officials, and others with knowledge of what happened. These multiple perspectives looking back at the incident helps paint a more complete picture of those events than just an act of documentary assemblage.
This keys into something else I noticed about Let the Fire Burn. Apart from the limitations of the formal approach to this subject matter, Let the Fire Burn necessarily takes a limited historical perspective as well. Osder uses footage of that timeframe gathered from various reports and hearings, and that’s it. I started to wonder about material that came after the hearings that Osder used. Were there subsequent reports in the year after the tragedy, five years after the tragedy, 10 years, 20 years, and so on? If so, how would the inclusion of that footage added to bigger picture? Similarly, there’s no mention of the later Ruby Ridge and Waco tragedies, which I think are part of this larger conversation about Let the Fire Burn, though maybe that conversation is one that is meant to take place outside of the film.
Since there’s no catch up done with the people who were involved in these events and no sense of reflection on the Osage Ave. stand-off in light of other ugly (to put it lightly) government oversteps, Let the Fire Burn operates in a sort of vacuum. We have enough historical perspective to consider what this all means in the bigger picture of the 1980s and 1990s, but the event is isolated as its own unit. Similarly, MOVE is isolated as its own entity without its social or historical contextualization alongside other politically charged, separatist, or utopian groups that came before it, like The Nation of Islam, The Black Panthers, or even Jonestown.
But I think I harp on these things because if Let the Fire Burn does something unimpeachable, it’s the way it handles the Osage Ave. stand-off itself. This is the area where the restriction of material to archival and reports helps provide a greater sense of the drama, confusion, and terror of that day. This happened in my own lifetime, but I was too young to be aware of it, unlike Waco. In the film, it’s as if I’m sitting in front of the TV watching it all unfold. This is the strength of Osder’s formal choice, and it’s undeniable when it hits. By the end of the stand-off, I was filled with bewildered outrage.
Even though it’s incomplete in a lot of ways, Let the Fire Burn deserves to be watched if only for its recreation of the Osage Ave. tragedy. There is such power in that footage, and the way that a lot of the police officers act regarding the murder of 11 people is infuriating but enlightening. This is a horror that happened only a quarter of a century ago. This is a good starting point for learning more about its complexities so hopefully crimes like this don’t happen again.
Alec Kubas-Meyer: Let the Fire Burn is a fundamentally flawed documentary. Exclusively using archival footage and the very occasional subtitle, there is nothing in this story except what the makers decided to pull from the newscasts of the time period it depicts. The story is fascinating; I had never heard of the events on Osage Ave. that inspired the film, so I enjoyed it on that level. But it didn’t do anything new.
Some new interviews with people related to the story or something along those lines would have gone a long way towards making the documentary feel like more than just a highlight reel of an event. I wanted to know more about the police, more about the members of MOVE, more about the way things played out in the minds of those people (although most of the MOVE members died in the event). The film is missing context, and it’s an unfortunate thing. Still, were I to research the event myself, it would have taken me a lot longer to learn everything that Let the Fire Burn taught me, so it’s got something going for it. 60 – Decent.
[For more info on Let the Fire Burn, visit tribecafilm.com/festival.]