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On May 13, 1985, Philadelphia police dropped two pounds of military explosives onto a city row house occupied by the radical group MOVE. The resulting fire was not fought for over an hour although firefighters were on the scene with water cannons in place. Five children and six adults were killed and sixty-one homes were destroyed by the six-alarm blaze, one of the largest in the city's history. This dramatic tragedy unfolds through an extraordinary visual record previously withheld from the public. It is a graphic illustration of how prejudice, intolerance and fear can lead to unthinkable acts of violence. Written by
A forgotten tragedy that still has relevance today
Let the Fire Burn, Director Jason Osder's first feature film, chronicles the chaotic and destructive events between the Philadelphia Police Department and the radical group MOVE from the 1970's to the 1980's. Contrary to most Documentary films, Osder uses no interviews, no re-enactments and no un-needed footage. Instead, Osder employs his own style by using only archival footage, showing the film in a sort of "real time". The footage is not shown in chronological order, instead he edits the clips in an order to show the lies and deceit behind the claims of most of the police officers.
MOVE, the radical group the film's focus is on, is a black liberation group that frequently engage in demonstrations against racism and police brutality. The group was founded in 1972, and this is where Osder's film begins. It chronicles MOVE's rise as a group in the early 1970's, it's conflicts with the police, and the escalation of violence between the two groups.
Osder doesn't show this one after the other like a timeline. Instead, he edits the clips into different parts of the film to provide pacing and to clearly state the message he is trying to share. Through depositional interviews and an archived documentary, Osder provides context on the MOVE organization for the audience. He then goes back and forth between differing footage as the events between MOVE and the police begin to escalate. As tensions begin to elevate, such as a police officer getting shot and killed, Osder still keeps the focus on the actions of the police and the in- justice that accompanies the MOVE organization. Even though a police officer was killed, juxtaposing footage doesn't prove that a MOVE member killed the officer. Other footage then shows the beating of a defenseless black man, Delbert Africa. While this footage is played, testimony from the police is played over, showing that the footage doesn't match the statements made by police. Officers suggested that Delbert Africa had a knife and was acting violently, when the footage shows that he walked out of the house with his hands held high, no weapons on him, completely defenseless. Not to mention that eventually 9 people would be found guilty for the murder of one person, and all 9 people were sentenced to life in jail. And yes, you did in fact read that right.
Osder does this many times throughout the film, juxtaposing the archival footage he has with the live testimony from the officers present. Each time, the footage overrules the statements made, revealing the distortion and fabrication.
While the film itself focuses on a terrible issue, it struck me that this even occurred over 30 years ago, yet is still relevant to America today. Police are still not held accountable for their actions, they are still treated above the law. Because it is still relevant today, it makes the film that much better. That people can still be showed this film, and it can still make them think and discuss the issues that face this country.
Finally, the last part of the film I want to touch on is actually a person, Birdie Africa. He was the only child to survive the tragedy, and he is the real message of the film. 5 children inevitably died, and the first-hand account that Birdie shares is truly frightening. Children were burned alive while firefighters and officers stood outside and watched, and did nothing. It infuriates me to even think about it while writing this, but 11 people died and no one was charged. 1 officer dies, and nine people are charged for that one death. Osder is trying to point out the huge discrepancies between police and everyone else, to bring attention to a tragedy still relevant today, to discuss the gross injustice that still lives. This film was great but it was not enjoyable, because it showed me the truth, and sometimes the truth can be uglier than you could possibly imagine.
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