The American Historian

What Remains after the Fire--Let the Fire Burn. Zeitgeist Films, 2013.

Juan M. Floyd-Thomas

What Remains after the Fire

By Juan M. Floyd-Thomas

Let the Fire Burn. Zeitgeist Films, 2013.



On May 13, 1985, the MOVE organization, a small group of African American religious dissidents, resisted an eviction order by Philadelphia police to vacate their headquarters in Cobbs Creek, an African American middle-class neighborhood in west Philadelphia. As the crisis escalated, police used tear gas, water cannons, and approximately ten thousand rounds of ammunition to drive the group from its row house. Per direct orders from Mayor Wilson Goode, the city’s first African American mayor, a makeshift bomb was dropped from a helicopter onto the house’s rooftop bunker. The subsequent blast ignited a massive blaze that not only consumed the house but also engulfed much of the neighborhood in flames. The death and suffering that resulted from this episode was even worse. Eleven MOVE members, six adults and five children, were burned alive and nearly 250 residents were left homeless. Only two MOVE members emerged from the flames that day: an adult woman and an adolescent boy. Jason Osder’s directorial debut, Let the Fire Burn (2013), is a thoughtful and provocative meditation on this important yet overlooked episode in modern U.S. history.

Let the Fire Burn depicts the tragic event as the culmination of a longtime feud between MOVE and the city of Philadelphia. The film’s title is a direct quote from Mayor Goode, who summarily explained his administration’s decision to “let the fire burn” in the hopes of ending the stalemate once and for all. Remarkably, the film is a found-footage pastiche consisting entirely of obscure archival news segments, student documentary film, and never-before-seen video recordings of a special investigative commission convened to determine the origins of the crisis. The rough-hewn quality of the source materials provides the viewer an immersive and immediate experience of the events as they unfold. Osder’s strategic use of flashbacks and flash-forwards provides a concise, compelling narrative structure that gives the documentary the magnetic allure of a suspenseful thriller. For instance, Osder juxtaposes the Philadelphia police department’s dispassionate report of Delbert Africa’s capture and arrest before the investigative commission with newly unearthed video of the MOVE member being savagely beaten by police. In this scene and others, Osder’s film reveals the significance of the camera’s eye as an important bulwark against government conspiracy and cover-ups.

In the film, Osder succeeds in showing how the city’s government repeatedly made bad decisions on behalf of its citizens that culminated in the death of almost a dozen people and the destruction of an entire neighborhood. Yet it must be noted that the film does not thoroughly explore the complex identity politics and religious dimensions pivotal to MOVE’s history. For anyone interested in such issues, filmmaker Louis Massiah’s documentary The Bombing of Osage Avenue (1986) offers greater insights. Likewise, Let the Fire Burn does not situate the conflict within the sweeping political, cultural, and social transformations of late twentieth-century America.

Using the videotaped deposition of young Michael Moses Ward (Birdie Africa)—the only child survivor—as a framing device, Let the Fire Burn clearly situates Ward as the heart and soul of this film. Osder utilizes Ward’s eyewitness testimony to reveal the callous governmental decision-making process that led to the catastrophic bombing. In light of Ward’s untimely death in September 2013, the scenes featuring the traumatized youngster take on a heart-wrenching poignancy. Watching a thirteen-year-old Ward being questioned by lawyers, we see a sad child haunted by torturous memories and nightmares of the day that his whole world became an inferno. Similarly, as a mesmerizing examination of a crucial moment in recent history, Let the Fire Burn preserves the memories of people whose lives were utterly devastated by the cataclysmic fire yet must never be forgotten.