January 23, 2014 at 1:47 pm

Review: 'Let the Fire Burn' reveals story of intolerance and stupidity

Six children died in 1985 when police bombed a radical group, as documented in 'Let the Fire Burn.' (Zeitgeist Films)

Stupidity and stubbornness lead to tragic consequences in the incomplete but still overwhelming documentary “Let the Fire Burn.”

Built on news footage of the time, along with footage from a long public inquest and an interview with the only child survivor, the film tells the story of how the Philadelphia Police Department, in one of the great lunkheaded overkill moves of all time, decided to drop a bomb on top of a home in a residential neighborhood to force its occupants to come out.

The result? Eleven people dead and some 60 nearby homes burnt to the ground.

The story follows a group/cult/organization/whatever called MOVE. Founded in the early ’70s, it followed the teachings of a fellow named John Africa. The film’s great weakness is it never really explains who John Africa was — his background, education, personal life — or what his teachings were, beyond some ramblings.

Still, it’s obvious he wasn’t buying into the typical Philadelphia lifestyle of the time. MOVE was apparently some sort of back-to-basics black liberation group, with kids running around naked and modern comforts shunned. In 1978, police raided the group’s home and an officer ended up dead. Nine MOVE members were convicted of murder — that’s a lot of fingers on one gun, and there were questions as to whether the officer died in friendly fire — and sent to prison.

This radicalized the group further. The members moved to a row house in another neighborhood, placed loudspeakers outside and began haranguing the local citizenry with protests and curses. Meanwhile, they built bunkers atop their house. Officials tried to calm things down, but with nine members in prison for murder, there was no calming to be had.

This all boiled over on May 13, 1985, when police evacuated the neighborhood and essentially laid siege to the house, spraying the roof with powerful water hoses, lobbing tear gas and pumping hundreds of rounds of ammo into the building.

Eventually, somebody had the bright idea of dropping a bomb on the roof. When that started a fire, the police commissioner made the decision to let it burn. There were 13 people in the house, six of them children. One adult and one child escaped. The rest, including John Africa, burned to death.

Director Jason Osder shows both sides of the coin. The MOVE of the ’70s and ’80s — the organization still apparently exists in some form — does not seem like a club you’d want meeting in your neighborhood. In fact, especially after the murder convictions, the members come off as excruciatingly obnoxious.

But the force the city used to attack the group was initially excessive, accelerated to brutal and then became just astoundingly dumb and murderous.

“Let the Fire Burn” offers a searing picture of how dumb and dangerous humans can be.

'Let the Fire Burn'

GRADE: B

Not rated

Running time: 88 minutes

At the Detroit Film Theatre

tlong@detroitnews.com
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