On May 17, 1974, my impressionable 11-year-old eyes watched an after-school special I would never forget: the live television broadcast of a police shootout. Hundreds of heavily armed officers were besieging a Los Angeles house occupied by a revolutionary group known, cryptically, as the Symbionese Liberation Army, and Eyewitness News was there to record every gunshot and explosion. By the time the siege was over, six members of the SLA were dead, the house was destroyed, and television’s vast wasteland had expanded into some disturbing new territory.
Eleven years later, an eerily similar incident took place in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, but with even grimmer results: 11 deaths and the destruction of four city blocks. The events leading up to this tragedy are examined in Let the Fire Burn, a remarkable new documentary opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Nov. 1.
Founded by John Africa (aka Vincent Leapheart) in the early 1970s, MOVE was (and still is) a “back to nature” personality cult living, paradoxically, in the heart of the big city. Primarily though not exclusively African-American, members of MOVE eschew modern technology and subsist on vegetables and other raw food. The organization had few friends in The City of Brotherly Love: their mostly African-American neighbors found MOVE abrasive on the best of days, while the white power structure – as exemplified by Mayor Frank Rizzo and District Attorney Ed Rendell – positively loathed them.
That loathing stemmed from a 1978 incident in which a Philly cop was shot dead during an attempt to evict MOVE from their Powelton Village digs. Rizzo and Rendell were convinced the officer died as the result of MOVE gunfire, and nine MOVE members were convicted of his murder (they’re all still in prison). MOVE contended that the officer died as the result of friendly fire, but whatever the truth, the Philadelphia Police Department was not about to forgive and forget.
By 1985, the city had a new mayor (African-American Wilson Goode) and MOVE had new headquarters: 6221 Osage Avenue, a townhouse dominated by a pair of ominous rooftop bunkers and some obnoxious loudspeakers. Determined to evict MOVE from the premises by (in Goode’s own words) “any means necessary,” Philadelphia police dropped a satchel of C4 plastic explosives onto the building, and the Mayor decided to “let the fire burn.”
Hours later, 11 people — including several children — were dead and dozens of homes destroyed. Though the overwhelmingly black neighborhood had been evacuated prior to the siege, residents of Osage Avenue had no inkling that the city might seek vengeance by destroying their neighborhood.
Directed by George Washington University professor Jason Osder, Let the Fire Burn consists entirely of skillfully edited period footage, much of it from hearings held by a special municipal panel enjoined to determine what went wrong on May 13th, 1985. While far from an apologia for MOVE – who clearly were uninterested in making nice with their fellow Philadelphians – the film offers a harsh assessment of Mayor Goode and the police and fire commissioners who worked for him. It’s the best documentary I’ve seen this year, and deserves an Academy Award nomination.
Footnote: Only two MOVE members survived the inferno: Ramona Africa, who remains a MOVE loyalist to this day; and adolescent Birdie Africa, who died last month in a bizarre hot tub incident aboard a cruise liner.
Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more Big Screen Berkeley reviews here.
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