Just a few months into Reagan’s Morning in America, it was wartime in Philadelphia. In May 1985, police mounted a disastrous assault on the militant group MOVE, which had holed up in a West Philadelphia rowhouse. Eleven people were killed (five of them children), 61 homes burned down, and, as Jason Osder’s intricately assembled found-footage documentary Let the Fire Burn shows, everybody lost.
History repeats itself, and returns to life, in Osder’s expert work of collage. Philly authorities and MOVE members, equally threatening and intransigent, had butted heads for over a decade; a 1978 shootout led to the razing of the group’s then-communal home. Osder (with the help of editor Nels Bangerter) recounts the saga by putting “the past in the present tense,” giving us different angles on the situation through varied archival video footage: news reports on the scene, proceedings from the city’s postmortem commission hearings, two past documentaries about MOVE, and the crushing deposition of a shell-shocked child survivor.
The deft, multifaceted construction recalls a Peter Watkins fabrication except, you know, real. It’s bracing anew to see MOVE’s Luddite survivalism and black radicalism in plain view, and the blatant provocation of their armed presence on the streets. Given the open challenge that the group represented to the police, the mayor, and officialdom, the eventual fear-and-hate-fueled showdown was inevitable. In the ensuing debacle, the neighborhood’s inhabitants and the kids born into the commune were caught in the crossfire, in some cases literally. A superior example of the found-footage documentary, now back in vogue, Let the Fire Burn outshines the lackluster likes of Our Nixon by combining the death-trip of a Senna with the radical history of Black Power Mixtape.
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