Movie Review: Let The Fire Burn

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This is a documentary that investigates the events on May 13, 1985 in Philadelphia, PA. That was the day Philadelphia police attempted to evict the radical group MOVE from a local neighborhood home. Tensions had escalated over the years to a point that by the end of that day there would be over three city blocks destroyed by fires and 11 people dead, 5 of whom were children.

The film is unique in that only archival news footage and film taken from the public hearing afterwards are used. There are no reenactments, no voice overs, no running commentary. It’s a bold move that allows the viewer to make their own mind up as to who is the villain and who is victim. The filmmaker maintains a sense of neutrality throughout the film. Absolutely brilliant editing and story telling. This film unfolds like a well-written drama.

The story starts in the late ’70s with the formation of MOVE and their counter-cultural ways that alienates both neighbors and city officials. MOVE teaches all to distrust the system, keeps their kids out of school and living in a commune culture. It was not uncommon to see MOVE members walk the streets with rifles and shotguns.

By 1978 with racial tensions at an all-time high in Philly, there is a standoff with the city police department that ends with 1 police officer dead, 1 MOVE member beaten, 8 others arrested, and MOVE using their own children as human shields – all caught on live news feeds.

Also caught on film was the beating of a MOVE member by three white cops. None of whom were ever convicted of any crime.

This sets the stage for the events of May 1985.

Scenes from the public hearing allow each side – MOVE and the City officials – to speak for themselves. As the testimony plays out, I found myself disgusted with all parties. MOVE apologists come across as angry voices with no thought of the collateral damage they bring to the neighborhoods they live in. Their treatment of children as pawns with the police department is deplorable. The mayor, police chief, and fire commissioner do not fair much better. Caught in the middle was a blue-collar neighborhood that eventually gets burned to the ground.

It’s a tragic case study of what happens when one (or both) side refuses to listen to the other. Wonderfully done and highly recommended.

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