In 1985, one of the most controversial—and catastrophic—police actions in U.S. history took place when the Philadelphia Police Department dropped a bomb from a helicopter on a fortified residence occupied by members of a group called MOVE. The subsequent fire killed six adults and five children associated with MOVE and destroyed 61 homes. Decades later, controversy and acrimony still smolder and the tragedy speaks to ongoing questions about race, class, police brutality, and more.
Let the Fire Burn, a highly praised documentary directed by George Washington University's Jason Osder, tracks the tumultuous history of MOVE, a mostly black back-to-nature group that advocated separatism and strange child-rearing techniques, and its often-violent relationship with a police department notorious for racial tensions.
Raised in the Philadelphia area, Osder was drawn to the story because of his childhood memories of the MOVE bombing but also because it raises a series of issues that are still relevant. "We tend to believe people should have a lot of freedom in the way they raise their children," he says. "But at what point if you're malnourishing your children is it society's job to come and do something about that?" MOVE members purposefully antagonized neighbors in their mixed-race neighborhood in West Philadelphia, he notes, and the police were constantly looking for reasons to crack heads as well. Let the Fire Burn daringly uses only contemporaneous footage in an attempt to "make the past present" and the result is not simply a stunning work of art but a searing, nuanced, and profoundly moving exploration of the failure of pluralism, government, and justice in the City of Brotherly Love.
Osder talked with Reason's Nick Gillespie about the complex issues at play in the MOVE bombing and how Let the Fire Burn tells a story whose tragic relevance lives on in contemporary America.
About 11 minutes. Produced by Joshua Swain. Camera by Swain and Amanda Winkler.
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