Jason Osder‘s searing Let the Fire Burn–a documentary about the tragic standoff between the radical black liberation group MOVE and the Philadelphia city administration in 1985–is ostensibly a documentary about an America of thirty years ago, but it is also about the America of today.
Last night, as my wife and I waited for the ‘verdict’ in Ferguson, we decided to watch Let the Fire Burn; at its conclusion, we sat there stunned and speechless and disbelieving. I could hear my wife sobbing. Contemplating the death of children, left to burn, and indeed, possibly forced back into a burning house by gunfire from a homicidal police force will do that to you. I got up, walked over to my dormant desktop machine, touched the space bar, and watched the screen spring to life. I checked my social media news feed: as expected, the grand jury in Ferguson decided not to indict, and thus bring to trial, the police officer Darren Wilson, for the deadly shooting of Michael Brown.
The brutality and cruelty of what we had just paid witness to was enough to make me pen the following initial response on my Facebook page:
Jesus Christ, the racist, malevolent stupidity on display in this documentary was unbelievable and unbearable.
Much of that same thick, unblinking, deadly mental and moral dysfunction has been on display in Ferguson: in the murderous shooting of Michael Brown, the heavy-handed reaction to the protests, (which sparked an inquiry by Amnesty International), the refusal to indict, the timing of the announcement, and sure enough, the pronouncements of St. Louis County prosecutor, Robert P. McCulloch.
To place this latest episode of the continuing tragedy of African-American life in some context, to see that black American life has always been cheap, that the police get away with murder all too often, all too easily, Let The Fire Burn is essential viewing.
There is no doubt MOVE in the Philadelphia of 1985 was a prickly bunch: they were radical in their deeds; they could be violent; there is ample cause for disagreement with their indoctrinaire methods; they were anti-social and bad neighbors. But nothing I saw in Let The Fire Burn will convince me that the police action, the heavily armed blockade of their ‘headquarters’ in a predominantly black neighborhood, followed by a gun battle in which over ten thousand rounds were discharged, the bombing of their house by a incendiary device dropped by a helicopter, and then fatally, the decision to not put out the fire, and burn down not just the house with its occupants still inside, but a total of sixty-one homes, could ever be justified.
Let The Fire Burn is made up entirely of archival footage; there are no talking heads, no contemporary analysis, no hindsight to be offered. The words and actions you see and hear are those of almost thirty years ago. They speak for themselves; no commentary is required. This is documentary making of the highest order. Watch it, weep, and rage. Most of all because nothing has changed.