In the masterfully crafted “Let the Fire Burn,” viewers are thrown back into a time that seems both ancient and wrenchingly immediate, when mutual fear, suspicion and misunderstanding combusted in a grievous, literally fatal, explosion.
On May 13, 1985, three city blocks in West Philadelphia were engulfed in flames after police bombed the residence of MOVE, a radical organization that for years had antagonized city officials and neighbors. Eleven people were killed that night, with two inhabitants of MOVE’s home escaping. The dispiriting context of the conflagration — MOVE’s history in Philadelphia, its escalating confrontations with law enforcement, the city’s increasingly militarized police force and its shockingly ineffective political leadership — is examined with admirable restraint in “Let the Fire Burn,” which nonetheless delivers a stunning emotional wallop. Directed with rigor and sensitivity by Jason Osder, this is the kind of nonfiction film that proves how powerful simple storytelling and a compelling through line can be.
Simple, but not easy. Osder — an associate professor in the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University — limits his scope to archival images, including 1970s documentary footage about MOVE, the videotaped deposition of young Birdie Africa, who survived the 1985 fire, testimony at commission hearings convened after the event and news reports as the disaster unfolded. Dispensing with the usual retrospective accounts and analytical chin-scratching, Osder creates both intensity and intimacy, inviting viewers simply to watch and listen as a tragedy — born of unchecked aggression, incoherent ideology and appallingly faulty logic — unfolds.
Those elements run both ways in “Let the Fire Burn,” in which the precise philosophical tenets of MOVE never come fully into focus: The group rejected technology, reared children on a diet of raw food and eventually built a bunker on top of their townhouse, from which a loudspeaker spewed profanity throughout their working-class, mostly black neighborhood. But as troubling as MOVE’s actions were, the behavior of Philadelphia mayors Frank Rizzo and Wilson Goode, as well as district attorney Ed Rendell and the police and fire commissioners, were just as confounding, with arguably more calamitous results. As “Let the Fire Burn” makes clear, whereas MOVE members were imprisoned and killed for their misdeeds over the years, no one who ordered or condoned the bombing in 1985 was ever held to account.
Threading through this dread-filled tick-tock is young Birdie — later known as Michael Ward — whose quiet, level-eyed answers to a commissioner’s questions provide a wrenching reminder of the human costs of a conflict that still can’t be adequately explained, let alone justified. Michael’s narrative — including the heroic police officer who saved him — also gives the audience a glimpse of the compassion and courage it might have taken to avoid that conflict altogether. In judiciously providing more light than heat, “Let the Fire Burn” subtly suggests how institutions and individuals alike can keep the match from being lit in the first place.
★ ★ ★ ★
Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains profanity, violence and adult themes. 88 minutes.