“Let the Fire Burn,” Jason Osder’s found-footage doc about a violent standoff between Philadelphia police and a black activist group called MOVE in the 1980s, has emerged as one of the year’s best documentaries. Nominated for two Cinema Eye Honors (for best editing and best debut) and the Gotham Award for best documentary, the film is a thrilling and disturbing historical document of racism, police brutality, and the catastrophic failure of local government. It’s also arguably “complex”–a word, which I discovered recently at a heated Q&A for the film in which I moderated–can be drastically misunderstood.
Critics of the film have rightly pointed out that “Let the Fire Burn” doesn’t paint a full and comprehensive picture of MOVE’s members, politics and identity. What it lacks in context, however, it compensates for in the way in which it vividly shows how MOVE’s members were unfairly persecuted and eventually killed. No matter what viewers think of MOVE, whether they believe their rhetoric to be liberating or aggressive, viewers will experience a sense of outrage and anger over the horrors that befell this fringe group. Maybe that’s not enough for some viewers, but it’s a start.
In introducing the film the other night, though, I made a gross miscalculation and suggested that the film blurred the lines between good and bad. But frankly I misspoke, and was thoroughly skewered by the audience after the screening. In hindsight, I see my framing was incorrect: It’s clear who is good and who is bad: The Philadelphia officials and its police force committed criminal acts of violence, while MOVE”s members were unjustly trapped and killed. So it’s not that there’s any moral equivalence between the two sides–and the power discrepancy between the two is also vastly uneven.
But while it’s not about good or bad, the film’s complexity lies in the fact that MOVE may seem, at first, like a dangerous cult, but as the film goes on, we see them more and more as victims of a gross injustice. It’s not about “ambiguity,” which is another word I mistakenly used; it’s about shifting one’s perspectives on an incident with multiple moving parts. If either “Let the Fire Burns” or myself get burned by audiences who believe that the film doesn’t do enough to understand MOVE or experience the subjectivity of MOVE or the hellish experiences they endured within that burning apartment house, I think that’s fair. But it also misses one of the things that makes the movie so remarkable: It’s taken a multi-faceted incident, with many people, personalities and institutions involved, and it’s retained the multi-dimensionality of that event. It’s certainly not meant to be a portrait of MOVE, but a portrait of a city’s own harsh self-reckoning.
We don’t have many Truth and Reconciliation Commissions in the U.S. like the one depicted in the film, but we should.