The brutal bombing of the MOVE organization by the Philadelphia police department on May 13, 1985 qualifies as one of those dreadful moments in recent history that, when explained, sounds as if it came out of an Octavia Butler novel rather than real life.
A new limited-release documentary, “Let the Fire Burn,” explores the events that led to that day as well as its aftermath. At 95 minutes, the movie progresses briskly as it goes from the surrealism of the Philadelphia Special Investigation Committee hearings to the hallucinatory news footage detailing the years, weeks and minutes that led to that dreadful day.
Called a cult by some, a religion by others and a movement by its members, MOVE began with the early 1970s writings and teachings of a handyman named Vincent Leaphart who changed his name to John Africa. John Africa collaborated with a community college professor named Donald Glassey to create the group’s manifesto/bible known as the Guideline.
Africa’s followers included dropouts and teachers, previously incarcerated people and revolutionaries. Living in Glassey’s townhouse in the Powelton Village section of Philadelphia, MOVE “family” members were taught a back-to-nature philosophy while practicing non-conformist values. Rejecting technology that they saw as the disintegration of moral values, each member accepted the surname “Africa” and grew their hair in dredlocks. The group was soon in constant opposition with the law and their community.
After a confrontation with police on August 8, 1978 that led to gunfire, one dead police officer and nine MOVE memberssentenced to 100 to 300 years in prison, the group moved to 6221 Osage Avenue in West Philadelphia.
Shortly after moving into the working class black neighborhood, MOVE disciples would go on loudspeaker tirades against the system and the cops. Neighbors reported that the MOVE children were fed raw food and went through their trash. They complained of rats living in the overrun backyard and of foul odor coming from the dwelling. The group eventually built a bunker on top of the house.
While MOVE could be eccentric and scary to some, the city largely ignored neighbors’ complaints. Finally, after evacuating the neighborhood on May 12, 1985—Mother’s Day—the police attempted to remove the group from their home. The task proved harder than they anticipated. After firing tear gas and 10,000 rounds of gunfire into the dwelling, the still-mind-boggling decision was made to drop the bomb on the 13th. Eleven MOVE members—including six children—were killed. In the resulting inferno, 61 houses were destroyed and 250 people were left homeless.
First-time director Jason Osder’s powerful film is bound to open up old wounds and ignite fresh dialogue about that tragic event 28 years ago. Compiled from found footage that had been stored at Temple University for years, “Let the Fire Burn” combines television news and documentary video with interviews conducted in 1985 at the hearings that followed the bombing. It also includes a separate interview with 13-year-old Michael “Birdie Africa” Ward, the only child survivor. (Sadly, on September 20, days before the New York City theatrical release of “Let the Fire Burn,” Ward died in a hot tub while on a cruise ship. He was 41.)
Osder, a former Philadelphia resident who is currently an assistant professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, was 11 years old when the bomb was dropped. He cites that day as when he lost his innocence.
“I could see the smoke in the horizon,” he said solemnly after a recent screening of his film at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn. “Kids were killed, their parents couldn’t help them, the police wouldn’t help them, and the whole thing just freaked me out. I didn’t understand why it happened, but the brutality stuck with me.”
While the bombing was worldwide news when it happened, by 2013 many people have never heard of MOVE or the harrowing incident. “While putting together the film, some people would see the fires and think they were watching something from the ’60s, not really comprehending that the MOVE bombing happened during their lifetime,” Osder said.
Unlike the typical Ken Burns-styled documentary that incorporates new interviews with archival stock, Osder choose not to include any fresh interview footage in “Let the Fire Burn.”
“We realized we had a special potential, especially with the hearings. I always wanted something that would be complex for the viewer that would give them multiple viewpoints. Talking heads usually takes the tension away, but we wanted to keep the tension building.”
The title of the film comes from Police Commissioner Gregor Sambors’ own callous command to Fire Chief William C. Richmond when the flames erupted from the house to “let the fire burn.” The fact that the mission was overseen by the city’s first black mayor, W. Wilson Goode Sr., made it that much more perplexing.
The mayor was not on the scene when the satchel of military-grade C-4 explosives was dropped. Goode, along with the rest of the city, watched the fire burn on his television set at City Hall.
From the strange stares of the questioners, to the often provocative answers from Ramona Africa and John Africa’s two blood sisters, to the overall tragedy of the entire situation, “Let the Fire Burn” is intense, heartbreaking and, during certain moments at the hearings, morbidly compelling. To see if “Let the Fire Burn” is playing in your area, check zeitgeistfilms.com.
Michael A. Gonzales has written for Complex.com, New York, HYCIDE and Wax Poetics. He blogs @blackadelicpop.blogspot.com and lives in Brooklyn.