What makes Jason Osder's documentary important, unusual, and almost pure is that it has no talking heads, no interviews, no new materials, and no reenactments of the events that led to two deadly confrontations between the Philadelphia Police Department and a radical urban organization called Move. What we see instead is the deposition of the only child who survived the second confrontation, which happened in 1985 and involved the police dropping a bomb on the Philly headquarters of Move, killing 11 people (five of whom were children) and destroying 61 homes in a black neighborhood. We also see the procedures of the Philadelphia Special Investigation Commission on the incident, which involved citizens, preachers, lawyers, politicians, early members of Move, and police officers who participated in the first confrontation, which occurred in 1978 and ended with one dead officer, five injured firefighters, and the members of the PPD brutally beating an unarmed black man.
What we see in Let the Fire Burn, then, is the smoothness of a process that has two main components—the media and the justice system—and these key features: It appears to be democratic, have no center, and be disconnected from history. This process, however, has inputs that have been precisely shaped by historical events and class positions within a hierarchical order of social power: what kind of person should be in the police department (a working-class white male), what kind of person should be in jail (a poor black male), who should moderate a commission (an educated white male), who should represent the black community (an educated black man), and so on. Although no one is directing this process, the right inputs still produce predictable outcomes: At the end of the commission on the incident, white officers are vindicated and the black radicals who are not dead are serving long sentences.
In fact, the process is so predetermined that the one white police officer who showed compassion and saved the life of a boy who stumbled out of the burning headquarters actually retires from the department because of stress related to internal pressure and being ostracized (he is called a nigger lover by his colleagues). One last word about this great and intelligently edited documentary: It doesn't show the people who ultimately benefit from this seemingly ahistorical and democratic process: the bankers, property developers, and CEOs of this and that corporation. But their very invisibility is what makes them so visible; their absence is indeed their presence.