Tribeca Film Festival 2013
By Don Simpson | April 19, 2013
Director: Jason Osder
May 13, 1985 was a pivotal moment in my childhood. I remember watching the local Philadelphia news that evening, mesmerized that a city’s police force would drop two pounds of military explosives onto a city row house, knowing that innocent women and children were inside the building. This was before 24-hour cable television news channels were the norm, so the fact that all three local news stations were so fixated on this event for the evening was equally fascinating. News reporters were broadcasting live from the scene, giving their firsthand accounts of the events. I specifically recall that my 12-year-old self felt like I was watching war correspondents, as explosions, fire and gun fire went off all around the news journalists. There was a unreal level of urgency and mayhem. I had recently discovered the word anarchy, and on May 13, 1985 I finally understood what that word meant. This was total chaos, and it was all incredibly frightening to me; but what frightened me the most was that as far as I could tell, the local police force initiated the chaos and they had no control over the rapidly escalating situation.
It really was a war. Philadelphia police acknowledged firing over 10,000 rounds of ammunition. The leader of MOVE, John Africa, was one of six adults who died in the fire; but even more disheartening, five innocent children died. In the end, 65 West Philly homes were burned to the ground by the six-alarm fire. Even if the few men inside the MOVE compound really were as dangerous as the police would lead us to believe, the working class people who lived in the other 64 homes were totally innocent. So, why did Mayor Wilson Goode authorize this bombing? More importantly, why did he give the infamous command to “let the fire burn”?
Admittedly, as a 12-year-old I was quite naive, especially in the realm of race and politics. Prior to that evening, I had no idea that MOVE even existed. It was not until years later that I began to learn more about MOVE; but the more I learned about MOVE, the more confused I became about the events of May 13, 1985. Founded by John Africa in 1972, MOVE was a predominantly African-American communal Christian society that opposed science, medicine and technology; preferring a Neo-Luddite, hunter-gatherer lifestyle. The confrontations between these anarcho-primitivists and the police became legendary, mainly because it seems as though no one ever told the real Truth about any of the events. There was just a heck of a lot of yelling and finger pointing…
The years of violent confrontations between MOVE and the police finally culminated on May 13, 1985, and even though a few local news affiliates were recording everything live, the information available to the public after the fact seemed to be inherently biased. This is where Jason Osder’s documentary, Let the Fire Burn, comes in. Twenty-eight years after Philadelphia became known as “The City that Bombed Itself,” Osder premiered an artfully-edited archival footage documentary about MOVE at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. Assembled primarily from news footage and video recordings collected by an mayor-appointed investigative commission, Let the Fire Burn avoids any heavy-handed narration or directorial voice; instead, Osder presents the audience with a riveting 88-minutes of firsthand documentation and allows us to come to our own conclusions. Regardless, it is difficult to avoid the obvious roles that prejudice, intolerance and fear played in the decisions made by Mayor Goode and the Philadelphia Police force on May 13, 1985.
As a Philadelphia native, I find May 13, 1985 to be the most embarrassing day of my city’s history, but it is also the day that turned me into a political activist. This is a part of Philadelphia history that is never acknowledged, so now I want everyone to experience Let the Fire Burn to make sure we avoid situations like this in the future. I hope the reverberations of this film will haunt Wilson Goode for the rest of his life; but, first and foremost, I hope the truth behind these events continues to bubble towards the surface. Thank you, Jason Osder, for making this film.