Film Analysis: Let the Fire Burn Film

Sep 12, 2021

Film Analysis: Let the Fire Burn Film

Jason Osder's riveting documentary film Let the Fire Burn draws inspiration from Greek tragedy to explore the events emanating from the violent confrontation between the MOVE and Philadelphia police. The move was an African-American group that served as an insurrectionary anarchist group. The conflict saw the leaders of Philadelphia police decide in their wisdom to bomb the MOVE’s headquarters. The conflict, whose events culminated in 1985, led to the death of 11 people, six children, and the destruction of approximately 60 homes. Osder uses his brilliantly edited documentary by drawing immensely from a found footage to offer a mesmerizing tale of how paranoid racism can escalate cultural differences into violent killings.

The non-fiction film draws its power from Osder's deliberate move to tell the catastrophic story from its original version tapping from available video archives. The documentary's central character is Michael Ward, who is the MOVE organization's only surviving child. The film opens with Michael sitting, responding to questions from the midst of men in suits. The author may have chosen to tell the story from Michael's childhood perspective because the innocent nature of children makes them inherently honest and able to tell things without prejudice or biases, and exaggeration. Michael starts recounting the story's events from his childhood openness, with the camera a few inches from him. The organization's activities combine with the footage showing armed protesters and the violence that marred the days in the struggle to fight racism in Philadelphia. He ends the interview with a light smile, presenting the only instance that Michael's face expressed delight throughout the interview (Osder). The experience of remembering and narrating the tale of the past that the young boy probably wanted to forget is heart-wrenching. The audience is left wondering the inspiration behind Michael's smile; maybe sharing it with someone brought him some relief or an expression of sarcasm because he felt nothing would come out of the interview.


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Osder’s film, to some extent, appears to be struggling to answer the question ‘why.’ For instance, the audience is repeatedly treated to situations where significant parties in the conflict recall the events of that day with dissociative calmness. For example, Helicopter Pilot Richard Reed can be seen trying to explain the angle approach which the mastermind of the bombing chooses when dropping C-4 explosives onto the headquarters of the MOVE organization over a model in a courtroom. Michael recounts the experience of a bomb exploding in the vicinity. Philadelphia's mayor acknowledges having played a role in the bombing of the MOVE during a public hearing. Wounded police officers and fire brigadiers can be seen on the chaotic and smoky streets as a group of police officers brutalize a black man. The picture of a black man bearing blunts of police brutality speaks a lot about the extent of racism in Philadelphia and the rest of American society (Osder). Several people suffered the aftermath of the conflict; children, by-standers, MOVE members, public officials, police, cross-examiners, and judgers, among others. The conflict shows how racism can give rise to an intolerant society where individuals decide to hurt others without thinking about the impacts of the actions emanating from their decisions.

Let The Fire Burn maintains a balanced tone with its non-dramatizing language. A police office's self-justifying report presented to the commission differs from the highly believed-to-be authentic version of the story narrated by Michael Wader. The film also shows a sincere attempt to get insights into the MOVE's tenets and beliefs, unleashing the hidden hostile vituperation. The MOVE's actions, including frequent bombardment of obscene taunts, rooftop bunkers, and shotgun-carrying sentries, gave rise to a family-oriented neighborhood. The documentary reveals the rooted levels of cultural intolerance and hostility that could turn a mere eviction into a full-scale attack. The police had learned to treat the neighborhood with hatred, and they could go as far as raining 10,000 ammunitions into a house occupied by harmless women and children. Cops treated every person in the neighborhood, whether armed or unarmed, as a culprit and agent of violence.  As among the film's most repellant and pro-racist, Gregory Sambor plays a significant role in letting the fire burn despite receiving orders to put it down.

The audience is left wondering whether the bombing of the MOVE’s headquarters was justified. There could have been better methods of resolving the conflicts and sorting out the differences instead of bombing the organization's headquarters. Racism and intolerance had given rise to the culmination of hatred and suspicion between the cops and the black community. The two parties believed that nothing could be solved between them without resorting to violence. The interviews, archival newsreels, and court proceedings empower Let The Fire Burn portray vivid images of a Greek Tragedy befalling the American society. The filmmakers display the highest levels of restraint when adding their voice to the story by allowing most of the film's video footage to flow as naturally as possible. The film constitutes complex events, some of which require careful consideration to comprehend. Osder wanted to remain as authentic and as neutral as possible when telling the non-fiction of the tragedy that many may overlook.

Many scholars have compiled materials documenting racism in American society from the time of post-slavery America to the civil rights movement in the 20th century. Let The Fire Burn presents an ingeniously interwoven fabric from the archives revealing one of the tragedies emanating from racism and cultural differences. The film offers a crucial glance into the history of racism and its impacts on American society.

Let the Fire Burn. Directed By Jason Osder, edited by Nels Bangerter. Zeitgeist Films, 2008


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