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INDEPENDENT LENS: Let The Fire Burn

Airs Monday, May 12, 2014 at 11 p.m. on KPBS TV

Above: A policeman surveys the devastation on Osage Avenue on May 14, 1985.

Courtesy of Philadelphia Inquirer

MOVE members and police during the 1978 confrontation outside MOVE headquarters.

Courtesy of Philadelphia Inquirer

MOVE members exit their headquarters during the 1978 confrontation.

Courtesy of Philadelphia Inquirer

Delbert Africa is arrested by police after the 1978 gun battle.

Courtesy of Philadelphia Inquirer

The aftermath of the fire on Osage Avenue in May, 1985.

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.

On the eve of the 29th anniversary of the actual events, "Let The Fire Burn" premieres on INDEPENDENT LENS, hosted by Stanley Tucci, Monday, May 12, 2014 on PBS.

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.

Past episodes of INDEPENDENT LENS are available for online viewing. INDEPENDENT LENS is on Facebook, and you can follow @IndependentLens on Twitter.

Video

INDEPENDENT LENS: Let the Fire Burn Preview

Above: Using archival news coverage and interviews, "Let The Fire Burn" brings to life one of the most tumultuous but largely forgotten clashes between government and citizens in modern U.S. history, as a longtime feud between Philadelphia police and the controversial urban group MOVE came to a tragic climax in 1985.

Video

The Philosophy of MOVE

Above: In this excerpt from the INDEPENDENT LENS documentary "Let The Fire Burn," former MOVE members Laverne Sims and Louise James tell the Philadelphia Special Investigation Commission about the philosophy of MOVE and its leader John Africa, including “absolute truth” and “exposing the lie in the system.”

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Philadelphia Special Investigation Commission

Above: In this excerpt from the INDEPENDENT LENS documentary "Let The Fire Burn," the Philadelphia Special Commission to investigate the tragic events of 1985 introduces the members of the multi-racial commission and how they, in Chairman William Brown’s words, “hope to accomplish healing the wounds.”