Still a hot topic: “Let the Fire Burn” revisits one of Philly’s darkest days

It’s an open wound in Philadelphia’s history: On May 13, 1985, police attempted to force revolutionary organization MOVE to vacate their townhouse on Osage Avenue. When tear gas and fire hoses didn’t work, they dropped four pounds of C4. The house caught fire; it spread, consuming over 60 homes and killing 11 MOVE members, including five children.

Director Jason Osder has assembled a careful, chilling documentary in Let the Fire Burn, tracing that fateful day and its context (particularly a standoff in 1978 in which a police officer was murdered and for which nine MOVE members were convicted), toeing the line between archivist and inquisitor. He avoids talking heads or narrators. The footage–pulled directly from MOVE documentaries, news reports, the deposition of sole child survivor Michael Moses Ward and public hearings convened in the aftermath–is imbued with the raw urgency of events as they happen.

Osder examines some of the underlying social complexities involved in MOVE’s history, suggesting it as idealistic but flawed, increasingly hardline against hostile police forces and alienated from the community. Despite the group’s issues, the horror that unfolded on Osage Avenue eventually defies description, a shock echoed in near-silent news footage as reporters are struck dumb and the condemning silence of key witnesses at the hearings that followed. The stricken faces of the committee members aren’t so much close-ups as mirrors.

Let the Fire Burn asks hard questions about the scope of governmental power that have yet to be answered. It is a wrenching, necessary film.

Sat., Oct. 26, 2pm. $10-$12. Prince Music Theater, 1412 Chestnut St. After the screening is a panel discussion with Osder, Philadelphia Police Officer Jim Berghaier; Michael and Randi Boyette, authors of the 1989 book Let It Burn: The Philadelphia Tragedy; and Ramona Africa, MOVE’s longtime minister of communication.

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