Let the Fire Burn

The City of Philadelphia, in flames.
The City of Philadelphia, in flames.

The little boy looks like a little boy. He’s quite handsome, with big eyes and a medium-sized Afro. He turns three-quarters right to the camera for most of his deposition, exposing blemishes on his left cheekbone which could be acne or could be scars from the burns he suffered. I’m hoping, of course, it’s the acne. We don’t learn about the burns until much later.

The little boy is one of only two people who survived two bombs dropped on his house. The bombs came courtesy The Philadelphia Police Department. The house was controlled by the MOVE organization, opposed to the police, opposed to the Establishment, opposed to everything except themselves.

Let The Fire Burn, opening this weekend, concerns MOVE, the investigation into the bombing, the investigation into an earlier shootout with police, and the overall aftermath of all of this. It includes a great deal of news camera footage, a great deal of public hearing footage. It also includes MOVE members re-creating things which they say happened to them.

I didn’t find it surprising that under these circumstances, a notion of “truth” ended up like a partially-erased pencil sketch. It does not help that John Africa, the founder of MOVE, was killed in the bombing, and cannot explain himself. The surviving members of MOVE who do testify show themselves at cross-purposes with the reality of everyone else. Given the nature of MOVE, that is not surprising, but it is not helpful.

First-time director Jason Osder, an assistant professor at the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs, understands the vagaries of the inquiry he’s filming, and his own inquiry framing it. The videotape image often shimmies and flurries in segues, for an apt, if obvious, visual metaphor. He sometimes does not trust his source material strongly; the image of naked children emerging from under a house, in an American metropolis should probably be analyzed for its shocking initial presentation versus its deeper, perhaps contradictory, implications, and not underscored with wistful piano music.

The survivors.
The survivors.
Still, the story and the inability to pin down the story, tell their own stories. I wish I knew more about John Africa and what he was trying to do with MOVE, other than the obvious. In the absence of that knowledge (books on the organization and its altercations do exist), I can venture my own views based on the film refracted through my own readings, which of course, eventually become my own prejudices.

I believe, however, from what I can gather from the film, that John Africa was a self-serving demagogue. And I believe that he wanted to go beyond suicide-by-cop, as that term usually applies to an individual. He wanted his organization, which he saw as indistinguishable from himself, to commit suicide by cop. And that was done.

Of course, the brass, the Establishment, including Philadelphia’s first-ever black mayor, Wilson Goode, dropped the bombs. They sent in the police. Like most liberal-minded people, I’d like to lay all this at the feet of Frank Rizzo, the Philadelphia mayor who in his caveman insouciance, seemed almost as bad as John Africa.

But the public hearings cut enough pieces of the pie for everyone’s plate.
You can learn the little boy’s name elsewhere, but I decided to leave him be, here. He reunited with his father, the only parent he had left after his mother’s death in the aforementioned. He’s around forty now. He became a long-haul truck driver.

I wonder if he still carries the burns on his skin. And I wonder what he thinks about after the sun goes down, on the long night highway.

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