They Didn’t Start the Fire
There have been bloodier massacres in the recent past, and bigger urban conflagrations, but perhaps no event in living memory has more dreadfully exposed the oldest, deepest rift in America than did the May 1985 police assault on the self-described revolutionary group known as MOVE. By bombing the row house that MOVE occupied and allowing the resulting blaze to burn out of control, Philadelphia’s predominantly white civic authorities killed eleven people, five of them children, and reduced much of a black working-class neighborhood to ruins. The outcome was a catastrophe. The tragedy, though, was the stand-off, which had been building for a decade—or so Jason Osder suggests in his quietly terrifying documentary Let the Fire Burn.
In reconstructing this escalating conflict, Osder has limited himself strictly to the use of period footage, including newscasts, MOVE propaganda films, police stakeout videos and recordings of the official commission of inquiry. His assemblage of these found materials, made with editor Nels Bangerter, begins as if it will be an exposé but soon turns into something more dangerous: a Frankenstein’s monster of documentary filmmaking, patched together from unearthed bits and pieces that fill you with cold horror at their touch.
Here you feel none of the ironic distance that ordinarily opens up in a compilation documentary. Sometimes, as you look at the images from another era, such a film will encourage you to jeer at the clumsiness of the antiquities on display; sometimes, as in The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, you’re invited to dwell with bitter laughter on the reality that was concealed beneath the manufactured lies. Or sometimes the mere existence of the footage may figure as a noteworthy curiosity, as it does in Penny Lane’s current release Our Nixon, which draws many of its images from the Super-8 movies that H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman and Dwight Chapin made during their years in the White House. (The irony turns dramatic: mere hobbyism stumbles into an encounter with obsessive, covert record-keeping.) Even in films that try to close the gap by adding present-day commentaries to the soundtrack, as do Göran Olsson’s The Black Power Mixtape 1967–1975 and Eliav Lilti’s Israel: A Home Movie, the things you see remain stubbornly bygone.
In Let the Fire Burn, however, the people, places and things on-screen seem uncommonly immediate. The few terse, matter-of-fact titles that Osder occasionally superimposes do nothing to distance the images, which come before you with the air of something irreducible, as if they were not representations of the past but solid pieces of it. A classic faith in the reality of the image is at play here—a recognition, which André Bazin articulated more than half a century ago, that film stock bears the photon trace of whatever was in front of the camera, and so puts us in remote but physical contact with the subject. In the years since Bazin wrote, many people have criticized this notion as naïve; but if so, naïveté can have a power beyond sophistication, as Let the Fire Burn suggests.
Osder bets heavily on ingenuousness by framing his narrative with the videotaped deposition of Michael Moses Ward, the child known in the MOVE house as Birdie Africa, who was one of the two survivors of the assault. Although Ward was 13 at the time, he seems more like a shy 6-year-old in the deposition, answering the gently coaxing interrogator so guilelessly that you adopt his viewpoint as the simple truth. This makes a stark contrast with the “absolute truth” of which two adult MOVE members, LaVerne Sims and Louise James, speak in their scornful, combative, devastated testimony at the commission of inquiry. They continue to believe fiercely in the late founder of MOVE, John Africa, who “exposed the lie in the system.” When the commission’s lead counsel asks James to identify that lie, she replies, bluntly, “You.”
Excerpts from MOVE’s films about itself reveal more about the group’s beliefs and way of life. You see a series of adults in single-minded fealty to “the strategy of John Africa,” and a gaggle of small children—kept naked in accordance with a back-to-nature ideology, and fed only raw foods (which Michael Ward says he disliked)—taught to chant whole paragraphs of pseudo-revolutionary gibble-gabble. On this evidence, MOVE was rude, loud, unsightly, unhygienic, confrontational, muddle-headed and a blight on its neighborhood.
But according to testimony given to the commission by police officer John Cresse, who had watched the group in its early years, MOVE originally was “not violent.” Enter sometime mayor and perennial tough cop Frank Rizzo, in his own mind a defender of civilized values, who is seen in the film describing MOVE as if it were an agent of international communism, and speaking of the police, without hyperbole, as being armed and ready for “war” with the group. Under Rizzo, the police met MOVE’s raucous, chaotic demonstrations with force. MOVE responded with shows of militance (in retrospect, little more than street theater) and threats to use equivalent force. And so the bloody spiral began, until a child at the MOVE house was dead in disputed circumstances, and then a policeman was dead (with the source of the gunfire also in dispute) and an unarmed MOVE member, surrendering after the shoot-out, was stomped to a pulp by a circle of cops.
And so, even though the next mayor was African-American, the pattern was set: futile belligerence on one side, massive firepower on the other. No matter that MOVE’s black neighbors, who found the group intolerable, begged the city for relief, showing that the conflict did not have to be dealt with as racial. The police had made it racial from the start. That was the tragedy; that was how the catastrophe destroyed the homes of the same black citizens the city was ostensibly out to protect. People who think that America is entering a postracial era will view Let the Fire Burn as a period piece. People who think that such mutual incomprehension is still commonplace in our society, and still concludes too often with a black corpse on the street, will watch the movie as if it is today’s news, filmed thirty years ago.
Let the Fire Burn begins its national theatrical run in New York City at Film Forum on October 2 and in Los Angeles at the Nuart Theatre on October 18.
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