Reviews - Specialty Releases


Film Review: Let The Fire Burn

After nearly 30 years, this film makes a violent standoff feel like it happened last week.

Oct 1, 2013

-By John DeFore


filmjournal/photos/stylus/1385998-Let_Burn_md.jpg
How should a civil democracy deal with a group of people whose lifestyles are so divergent they make neighbors, rightly or wrongly, feel uncomfortable? When officials botch such an interaction so badly that confrontation turns to violence, who's to blame? Jason Osder looks at one sad case study in Let the Fire Burn, gathering archival footage dealing with a 1985 episode in Philadelphia that killed 11 people and burned 61 homes to the ground. The doc's focus on period material confers an in-the-moment feel to the final product, bringing urgency to a story many in the audience will never have heard but which remains relevant after almost three decades.

Philadelphia's MOVE collective, a back-to-nature group with Black Power leanings, favored dreadlocks and proselytized for raw food; they eschewed electricity but were okay with guns, and in a 1978 conflict over their Philadelphia home, a police officer was killed. (The group claimed they hadn't shot him, but nine members were convicted of the killing; meanwhile, no officers were convicted in a brutal beating of MOVE member Delbert Africa that was caught on film.)

Tension simmered after the group moved to a new house in a middle-class neighborhood, where they boarded up windows, built a bunker on the roof, and used a PA system to broadcast profane complaints about how they'd been treated. On May 13, 1985, the city attempted to evict them by force. After a standoff involving occasional bursts of gunfire, police used a helicopter to drop explosives on the bunker; a fire soon started that was allowed to burn until all but two residents were dead and scores of surrounding houses were destroyed.

Osder tells this story using a variety of sources, ranging from the day's live newscasts to the deposition of 13-year-old survivor Birdie Africa and extensive footage of a commission set up in the aftermath of public outcry. Much of this testimony is hotly debated before our eyes, and some has been disputed in the years since; in limiting the film's pool of evidence, Osder prevents us from viewing this tragedy as a dead thing whose meaning will be offered up by historians. The account is vivid and sometimes heartbreaking, even when viewed through a law-and-order lens.

But while removing after-the-fact evidence from the picture has a useful effect, the doc could benefit from more information about what led up to that day. Viewers who've never heard of MOVE and are trying to decide how sympathetic they are to the group are hindered by an incomplete picture of how members came to be such a thorn in the city's side, and what official persecution might have prompted their increasingly confrontational rhetoric.

The filmmaker's view, one supposes, is that this is irrelevant—that no action that resulted in the deaths of five children (alongside six adults) can be justified, no matter how antagonistic their parents might have been. With editing that tightens the screw steadily over an hour and a half, Let the Fire Burn makes that case while reminding us of other famous instances (one a mere eight years later, in Waco, Texas) in which law enforcement seemingly preferred to let troublesome citizens die instead of figuring out how to bring them to justice.
- The Hollywood Reporter


Film Review: Let The Fire Burn

After nearly 30 years, this film makes a violent standoff feel like it happened last week.

Oct 1, 2013

-By John DeFore


filmjournal/photos/stylus/1385998-Let_Burn_md.jpg

How should a civil democracy deal with a group of people whose lifestyles are so divergent they make neighbors, rightly or wrongly, feel uncomfortable? When officials botch such an interaction so badly that confrontation turns to violence, who's to blame? Jason Osder looks at one sad case study in Let the Fire Burn, gathering archival footage dealing with a 1985 episode in Philadelphia that killed 11 people and burned 61 homes to the ground. The doc's focus on period material confers an in-the-moment feel to the final product, bringing urgency to a story many in the audience will never have heard but which remains relevant after almost three decades.

Philadelphia's MOVE collective, a back-to-nature group with Black Power leanings, favored dreadlocks and proselytized for raw food; they eschewed electricity but were okay with guns, and in a 1978 conflict over their Philadelphia home, a police officer was killed. (The group claimed they hadn't shot him, but nine members were convicted of the killing; meanwhile, no officers were convicted in a brutal beating of MOVE member Delbert Africa that was caught on film.)

Tension simmered after the group moved to a new house in a middle-class neighborhood, where they boarded up windows, built a bunker on the roof, and used a PA system to broadcast profane complaints about how they'd been treated. On May 13, 1985, the city attempted to evict them by force. After a standoff involving occasional bursts of gunfire, police used a helicopter to drop explosives on the bunker; a fire soon started that was allowed to burn until all but two residents were dead and scores of surrounding houses were destroyed.

Osder tells this story using a variety of sources, ranging from the day's live newscasts to the deposition of 13-year-old survivor Birdie Africa and extensive footage of a commission set up in the aftermath of public outcry. Much of this testimony is hotly debated before our eyes, and some has been disputed in the years since; in limiting the film's pool of evidence, Osder prevents us from viewing this tragedy as a dead thing whose meaning will be offered up by historians. The account is vivid and sometimes heartbreaking, even when viewed through a law-and-order lens.

But while removing after-the-fact evidence from the picture has a useful effect, the doc could benefit from more information about what led up to that day. Viewers who've never heard of MOVE and are trying to decide how sympathetic they are to the group are hindered by an incomplete picture of how members came to be such a thorn in the city's side, and what official persecution might have prompted their increasingly confrontational rhetoric.

The filmmaker's view, one supposes, is that this is irrelevant—that no action that resulted in the deaths of five children (alongside six adults) can be justified, no matter how antagonistic their parents might have been. With editing that tightens the screw steadily over an hour and a half, Let the Fire Burn makes that case while reminding us of other famous instances (one a mere eight years later, in Waco, Texas) in which law enforcement seemingly preferred to let troublesome citizens die instead of figuring out how to bring them to justice.
- The Hollywood Reporter
Post a Comment
Asterisk (*) is a required field.
* Author: 
Rate This Article: (1=Bad, 5=Perfect)

*Comment:
 

More Specialty Releases

A Long Way Down
Film Review: A Long Way Down

The plot of A Long Way Down is as awkward and as annoying as they come, but some really good acting by the film’s four major stars almost makes this one worth seeing. Almost. More »

Land Ho
Film Review: Land Ho!

A pair of seniors find friendship and renewal on a road trip through Iceland, but the journey is flatlined by lack of incident and tedious naturalism. More »

Rage
Film Review: Rage

In different hands, Rage could have been a devastating chronicle of the sins of the fathers being visited on their children, friends and random unfortunates. But Andalusian filmmaker Paco Cabezas, making his English-language directing debut, is unable to keep the complicated story and international cast in line; the results are never dull but are sometimes unintentionally hilarious. More »

Affluenza
Film Review: Affluenza

Handsome-looking but all-too-familiar drama about wealthy Long Island teens with too much money and time on their hands makes no inroads into the adolescent angst that afflicts the silver-spoon set. Like the recent and aggressively marketed Palo Alto, a screen pulse may awaken in ancillaries. More »

ADVERTISEMENT



REVIEWS

Dawn of the Apes review
Film Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

If Rise of the Planet of the Apes successfully restarted the dormant Apes franchise, the superior Dawn indicates the grand saga this new iteration might become. More »

Tammy
Film Review: Tammy

Hollywood’s most bankable big-screen comedienne is on the buddy-comedy road again, with a most worthy companion—a brilliantly out-there Susan Sarandon. More »

Player for the Film Journal International website.


ADVERTISEMENT



INDUSTRY GUIDES

» Blue Sheets
FJI's guide to upcoming movie releases, including films in production and development. Check back weekly for the latest additions.

» Distribution Guide
» Equipment Guide
» Exhibition Guide

ORDER A PRINT SUBSCRIPTION

Film Journal International

Subscribe to the monthly print edition of Film Journal International and get the full visual impact of this valuable resource for the cinema business.

» Click Here

SPONSORSHIP OPPORTUNITIES

Learn how to promote your company at the Film Expo Group events: ShowEast, CineEurope, and CineAsia.

» Click Here