Let the Fire Burn

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let the fire burnOne of the reasons I often recommend documentaries is that I’m exposed to some story or person I knew very little about. Afterwards, you’re usually glad you invested the time to learn about the subject.

To me, The Move was a British band with Jeff Lynne. I had never heard of the urban group that created MOVE in Philadelphia in the ‘70s.

Let the Fire Burn tells their story, and how the police used bullets, bombs, and fire to win their battle with them. That battle ended up killing 11 people and burning down 60 homes (many belonging to neighbors that weren’t a part of MOVE). This is shown almost entirely with archival footage.

Anybody that watches this movie and wants to turn it into a racial thing is idiotic. Unfortunately, that will be most people. Sure, the MOVE group is comprised of mostly African-Americans. The police force is nearly All white. Yet it was the police that kept getting calls from black neighbors complaining about this group. They’d use bullhorns and loudspeakers to shout their rhetoric, often filled with cursing. They neglected the children living in the cult like compound, and they walked around carrying guns. How are the police supposed to react to this type of behavior?

Yet what makes the documentary so fascinating is how you may change alliance as you watch. Early on, you hate everything coming out of the MOVE members mouths. They all believe their leader John Africa taught the “absolute truth,” yet they don’t explain what that means. They didn’t want to use electricity, gas, or eat cooked foods. They were mostly vegan, aside from the occasional raw turkey the kids got to eat. The children were often malnourished. And when police beat one of the members of the group, you’re conflicting. Sometimes when a person is resisting arrest, these things happen. Yet as we saw with Rodney King, sometimes the police officers get a little more worked up than they should.

The edits in the documentary work well, too. We see the sole child survivor, Michael Ward (who was renamed “Birdie Africa” while in MOVE), answering tough questions. That’s cut between scenes of the police stand-off, as well as news footage.

Maybe Wilson Goode, the city’s first black mayor, had ordered the police to extricate the MOVE group who had barricaded themselves in the commune. Well, the water cannons didn’t work so well on the bunkers the group built on top of their building. At some point, the cops decided to unload 10,000 rounds of ammunition into the building. They claimed they were shot at first, but you’ll have doubts about that. Yet instead of me hating how the police handled all this, I was conflicted. I think the nut job MOVE members were as much to blame. I’m guessing most won’t feel that way, though.

Some critics, when writing about 12 Years a Slave said, “We need to see a movie like this, so that we make sure it never happens again.” That’s such dopey logic, because movies are supposed to entertain us, not teach us lessons. Besides, we don’t need movies like 12 Years a Slave to tell us slavery was bad.

I do feel a documentary like this can be important for people to learn a lesson from, though. The police can learn how things can turn ugly if they don’t follow proper procedure or they decide to just start using weapons when they get angry. And groups that want to protest can learn that, if they don’t follow orders from police, they might get beaten up, shot, or burned down. That doesn’t mean they deserve those things to happen, but…mistakes happen. The police are human. They might hear something they think is a gunshot, or see something in your hand that looks like a weapon.

When you want to protest, get the proper paper work filled out and go march your tails off. Once you start bothering working class neighborhoods whose kids can’t play out in the street because of your curse filled rants…I have little sympathy for anything that happens to your group.

All that being said…once we hear that the cops are saying “let the fire burn” as a way to battle this group, you cringe. Everybody watching realizes this is the wrong decision, and the blaze quickly gets out of control.

It’s always fascinating to learn about cults. This group, unfortunately, didn’t even know what they believed. They wanted to antagonize everyone around them, not follow authority, and members had to change their last name to “Africa.” Group members included Tomaso Africa, Sue Africa, Conrad Africa…perhaps it sheds a little light on how quarterback Michael Vick decided to use the alias “Ron Mexico” while partying in Mexico.

And for anyone that’s going to be quick to point out how horrible the police were in this, there’s an elderly African-American neighbor being interviewed by a news station. It’s right before the stand-off and he is being evacuated. He said he’d rather stay, but that he knows the cops will have to “kill ‘em all” if they want them out of that building. It was a fight MOVE was relishing.

There’s also a cop that saves Michael Ward (Birdie Africa) as he flees the burning building. It breaks your heart to hear how that story turns out for the officer.

During the closing, we’re told Michael Ward is now a long-haul truck driver. I did some research and found that in September of this year he died in a hot tub on a Carnival Dream cruise. That was sad to read, because it took him awhile to adjust to a normal life living with his dad and going to a regular school. How can you not feel horrible for children thrown into such appalling living conditions because of their parents?

The documentary did drag a little in the middle, but perhaps I felt that way because the copy I was watching on my computer kept freezing up for 15 minutes at a time.

This gets 3 stars out of 5.

4 comments

  • George J

    What I find interesting is that when founded The Move was known as the "Christian Movement for Life" and had strong views on animal rights. I am going to see this film as I always like to see movies based on cultural entities and non fictional stories.

  • Veronica

    THis movie isn't playing anywhere in San Diego. I did Google and read about Move after reading your review. They didn't seem like they were a bad organization or a cult in any way.

  • Bern Natette

    As an African-American who grew up in the same area as The Move in the 70's I wasn't surprised at the portrayal of the film and The Move. It was a hairy time back then and my uncle knew a few members personally. He has shared some stories with our family and really was for what The Move stood for. I enjoyed the film.

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