“It’s not a cult, it’s an organization,” claimed MOVE leader John Africa, though how one categorized these radical Philadelphians depended on who you asked. Social workers and neighbors of this ’70s African-American collective would describe them as a cult due to their unusual parenting methods and insular groupthink attitude; MOVE members would say that their vegan, back-to-the-land lifestyles were a protest against technology and a way to return to their roots. The City of Brotherly Love’s police force, however, labeled them terrorists, and an officially sanctioned reign of harassment that began with altercations soon escalated to shoot-outs, dead cops and murder charges. After MOVE moved to a new building, a final standoff took place: A bomb dropped from a helicopter incinerated the building, killing 11 members (including several children) barricaded inside.
That Let the Fire Burn takes its title from Mayor W. Wilson Goode’s declaration of how the authorities should respond would suggest which side the filmmakers are on, and there’s every reason to think that this portrait will play things high and dry, a Dateline episode writ large. Instead, Jason Osder eschews the usual talking-heads methodology, instead constructing an autopsy of the incident through archival footage: home movies, news reports, PBS docs, student films and, most damningly, footage from the investigatory committee hearings that sought to figure out what happened. (The reaction shots of counsel William B. Lytton as his listens to former MOVE members lay into his inane questions are priceless.)
What Osder yields from these patchworks, sans 20/20-hindsight commentary, feels closer to journalism than the usual cinematic editorials that have become a default mode for many historical documentaries. It's taken for granted that the law was provoked, that John Africa’s cleaner-living manifestos were sound even as his militancy and the group’s domestic actions pushed the boundaries of acceptability, that race (and racism) played a huge factor and that what happened on May 13, 1985, was an act of aggression. Those are the whats; by delving into the whys one juxtaposition at a time, he's produced a first-rate piece of forensic filmmaking.
Follow David Fear on Twitter: @davidlfear
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