Independent Lens | Let the Fire Burn
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Watch Monday, May 12, 2014 at midnight on WMHT TV.

On May 13, 1985, a longtime feud between the city of Philadelphia and controversial radical urban group MOVE came to a deadly climax. By 5:00 p.m., police had already fired over 10,000 rounds of ammunition into the fortified MOVE row house that contained children and adults. On orders from local authorities, police then dropped military-grade explosives onto the roof of the house. Captured live on television news, the ensuing conflagration quickly escalated, resulting in the tragic deaths of eleven people (including five children) and the destruction of 61 homes. Only later was it discovered that authorities had decided to stand by and “let the fire burn.”

In this astonishingly gripping film, director Jason Osder has crafted that rarest of cinematic objects: a found-footage film that unfurls with the tension of a thriller. Using only archival news coverage, televised public hearings, documentary footage and interviews, first-time filmmaker Osder has brought to life one of the most tumultuous and largely forgotten clashes between government and citizens in modern American history.

Founded in 1972 by John Africa (Vincent Leaphart), MOVE combined elements of a Black Power movement with aspects of a back-to-nature religion. Members took the surname “Africa,” wore their hair in dreadlocks, shunned technology, and promoted a diet of raw food. Grappling for a way to describe the group, reporters sometimes referred to MOVE as a “cult” and later as “terrorists.” By 1978, years of simmering tensions between the group and city authorities resulted in a gun battle that claimed the life of police officer James Ramp. Convicted of third-degree murder, nine MOVE members received sentences of 30-100 years.

Let the Fire Burn is more than just the story of a little-known American tragedy. It is an epic illustration of how intolerance and fear can spiral into unthinkable acts of violence.

The film is dedicated to Michael Moses Ward (Birdie Africa), the only child to survive the 1985 fire, who passed away on September 13, 2013 at the age of 41.