Let the Fire Burn – 4.75 stars

I was in school in Philadelphia from 1982 to 1984, during the mayoralty of Wilson Goode, who had taken over from the dictatorial former police commissioner and mayor Frank “I’m gonna’ be so tough as mayor, I gonna’ make Attila the Hun look like a faggot” Rizzo (Rizzo had once bragged that his police department could invade a country, and having seen them in action, I believed it). At that time, the Philadelphia police department was in an intractable standoff with a weirdo cult – MOVE – a back-to-nature, but armed-with-guns, community-based but plague-on-the-surrounding-community organization that melded hippie-life, black militancy and making their neighbors (largely, middle class blacks) miserable. The cops and MOVE had tangled once before, in 1978, leading to a siege where a police officer was killed and numerous cops and fire fighters wounded. Nine MOVE leaders and other disciples received life sentences as a result, but the remainder of the organization’s adherents moved to another neighborhood in West Philadelphia, where the entire scenario played out again years later. I clearly remember the local news reporting on police-MOVE clashes when I was in Philly, but until I saw this documentary, I had actually convinced myself I was in the City of Brotherly Love for the final confrontation.  I was wrong. By then, I had transferred schools and sat in Harrisonburg, Virginia, where the only assault was olfactory, a combination of a dog food plant and turkey slaughter.

Mayor Goode decided he’d had enough of MOVE plaguing yet another neighborhood (MOVE’s parenting was questionable, they had built a row house on Osage Avenue into a fortress, they menaced the neighbors and in particular, blasted obscenity from loudspeakers with regularity at all hours).  The cops came in to serve warrants on several MOVE members, they resisted, gunfire ensued (MOVE shot, and the police responded, if not in kind, as they unloaded 100,000 rounds into the house), another siege ensued, only this time, after a long period of time where they doused the MOVE house with water hoses, the police dropped an incendiary device on their house. And they let it burn. And it did, eventually engulfing the neighborhood, destroying 65 houses and killing 11 of 13 MOVE members, including 5 children.

This documentary is comprised solely of archival footage from the news, the public hearings that took place after the events (two of my former law partners were involved, one as the then-D.A. and the other as a member of the commission), and depositions taken in connection with litigation.  It is riveting, almost dreamlike, and you can’t even imagine that what you are seeing could possibly occur. But it did (and actually, again in the 1990s with the Waco stand-off), and the rendition is gripping, With the exception of some discordant editorializing at the end of the documentary in the aftermath section, it is also fair. On Netflix streaming.

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