Let the Fire Burn (2013)

Post submitted by Lamont Lilly.

Director: Jason Osder

LetFireBurn1On Friday, September 20th 2013, the Full Frame Theatre in Durham, NC hosted the premiere of a film called Let the Fire Burn by filmmaker and director, Jason Osder. It was supposed to premiere during the Full Frame Film Festival in April, but had to postpone its Durham debut until Full Frame’s Third Friday Free Film Series. It was a documentary about the bombing of an organization called MOVE and historical developments concerning the group’s political repression by the city of Philadelphia since 1978. Osder’s premiere of Let The Fire Burn was absolutely riveting.

Prior to the film’s core storyline of the 1985 bombing, Let The Fire Burn details the Philadelphia Police Department’s 1978 raid on MOVE’s Powelton Village home in West Philadelphia. It also shares the story of the MOVE 9, members of the organization who have currently been in prison for 35 years. Carefully cut, the footage is raw and very intense, penetrating the pores of struggle from the front row. As Let The Fire Burn journeys from one decade to the next, viewers never lose a beat.

On August 8th 1978, the Philadelphia Police Department raided MOVE’s communal residence in Powelton Village on grounds of “conspiracy and suspicious activity.” During the raid, Philadelphia police officer, James Ramp was somehow shot and killed. Ballistics and state evidence pointed to friendly fire. Yet, nine MOVE members were convicted of the murder of one cop and sentenced to 30 to 100 years in federal prison. The sentencing judge would later admit that he had no idea who fired the fatal bullet. The few guns that were seized from MOVE’s home were later found to be inoperative by state investigators. Two days later, their Powelton Village home was destroyed by city bulldozers as the group was forced to relocate.

Osder’s visual lens then takes you to the year 1985 to MOVE’s new address on 6221 Osage Ave. The group’s new location was in a quiet and cozy section of Philadelphia’s black working class district called Cobbs Creek. MOVE’s alternative lifestyle was a severe contrast to the neighborhood’s accepted norms and values. Complaints from neighbors reported profanity projected through loudspeakers, children exposed nude publicly, and vast amounts of unwanted varmints. Piles of compost and human waste also created disdain. In all fairness, MOVE members were also advocates of religious freedom, animal rights, gender equality and racial solidarity. Nevertheless, the Philadelphia Police Department leveraged those concerns to wage war. Publicly, the decision to raid the group’s new location was to “clean up the building and arrest members who had outstanding warrants.” As Let The Fire Burn so vividly depicts, the Philadelphia Police Department’s assault on May 13th 1985, would mark an American tragedy.

That was the day over 200 Philadelphia police officers gathered outside of MOVE’s home on Osage Ave. That was the day over 10,000 rounds of police ammunition was used against unarmed citizens. Officers claimed they were fearful of MOVE’s massive collection of firearms and explosives. Yet, no automatic weapons were found in MOVE’s residence. Initially, officers deployed tear gas through broken windows. Then water, lots of it. One thousand gallons of water per minute were dispersed via the Philadelphia Fire Department from the roof and sides of the house.

LetFireBurn2All of a sudden a bomb was dropped on MOVE’s roof from a police helicopter. Four pounds of C4 explosives were dropped on a row house full of people. Minutes later, another bomb was dropped. When informed about the developments of this violent occurrence, Philadelphia’s African American Mayor, Wilson Goode consciously responded on live video to “Just let the fire burn.” The water hoses that were once pumping thousands of gallons of water per minute were turned off. A raging fire that had already killed 11 people was intentionally allowed to spread. In just a few brief hours, 61 homes had been completely destroyed—memories and life-savings leveled to worthless ashes. Mayor Goode watched the destruction from his office television at City Hall. Only two MOVE survivors exited the burning building – activist, Ramona Africa and a young boy named Birdie, whose testimony and childhood descriptions were documented throughout the film.

In 95 minutes, Osder’s documentary captures this entire saga, plus more. The fabric in which Osder weaves this story is absolutely surreal. Local news channels were covering the entire event live. Much of the film’s footage was cut and clipped from on-the-ground sources actually present that day. The use of archival video was pivotal in this piece. Nels Bangeter was the film’s chief editor, a role quite critical when considering there wasn’t much originally created or produced, here.

Let The Fire Burn took over 10 years to make. And that’s exactly how it looks, meticulous, time-consuming and well crafted. Osder’s eye sculpts the film seamlessly on a tightrope of truth without bias. During the post Q&A, he discussed how most media sources demonized the organization, referring to MOVE as terrorists. Yet, he saw them as human beings who had caught an “extremely raw deal of injustice.” Jason Osder grew up in Philadelphia, stating that “The timing of it dawned on my conscience even as a small child. It was the moment that cracked my childhood shell.”

As for MOVE, this film isn’t just a movie—it’s real lives that are painfully still playing out. Eight of the original MOVE 9 members have been in prison for 35 years now. Merle Africa died while incarcerated in 1998. In 1996, federal courts mandated the city of Philadelphia to pay out $1.5 million to one of the survivors and relatives of two members who were killed in the 1985 bombing. As Let The Fire Burn clearly illustrates, justice is still waiting in this case. Truth is still waiting to be unleashed.

Lamont Lilly is a contributing editor with the Triangle Free Press, Human Rights Delegate with Witness for Peace and organizer with Workers World Party. He resides in Durham, NC.