A few days ago, a police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, a black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri. He was unarmed, his apparent crime walking in the street with a friend instead of on a sidewalk. Citizens in Ferguson have congregated in justifiable anger to protest, and they’ve been met with a police response of jaw-droppingly draconian proportions. Tanks and tear gas are rolling through the streets. Air traffic has been shut down to limit press access, and reporters have been detained for no reason. At every turn, the police have escalated the situation, and now looting and clashes between them and citizens pepper the city. This is happening today. In 2014. In America. But if you’re shocked at all by this, it’s only because you haven’t been paying attention.
Yesterday, a movie called Let’s Be Cops hit theaters. The title alone would make it the most unfortunately ill-timed release of the year, but given the film’s dismal reviews, there’s likely no good time for it to have come out. Again, while Ferguson is an awful exemplar of race-related police brutality on a massive scale, there are no shortage of such incidents to pick from. American culture’s goofy cartoon trope of policeman in comedy films becomes garish when set against the reality. And it’s not as if our dramas do any favors to the realities of those who live in constant fear of law enforcement. Pop culture, for the most part, glorifies the myth of a brotherhood of noble officers facing down monsters in the streets. Depictions of police brutality are few and far between.
So forget Let’s Be Cops. Worthless entertainment can be harmless, but in a time like this, where we’re finally forced to confront some unfortunate realities about life in America, if only for a moment, we need to edify ourselves. To that end, watch Jason Osder’s Let the Fire Burn, and understand that black people acting en masse provoking a disproportionate response from law enforcement is not a new phenomenon at all.
The documentary chronicles the events leading up to a violent confrontation in 1985 between the Philadelphia Police Department and MOVE, a black liberation group. Tension had been winding tighter and tighter for years, and members of MOVE were not given to back down from antagonizing the establishment, so an overkill retaliation seemed all but inevitable. This came about when an attempt to evict the organization from its row house headquarters turned into a standoff that escalated until police firebombed the building from a helicopter. Five children and six adults died in the blaze that resulted, one that the police consciously decided not to fight. The conflagration went on to consume 60 neighboring houses. An investigation found that the city leaders and police had “acted negligently,” but no charges were ever filed against them.
Let the Fire Burn is cut together entirely from historical footage, the only modern additions being its soundtrack and a few expository title cards. News reports, recordings of the post-incident investigative hearings and an interview with young Birdie Africa (one of two survivors of the MOVE home; he died last fall) comprise the bulk of the film’s flesh. The effect is unreal — less like watching a documentary, as far as conventional docs have conditioned us to experience them, and more like witnessing the events in real time from an omnipresent point of view, as voices from the future explain (or rather, weakly justify) their actions.
At the time of this writing, events in Ferguson seem to be building towards some kind of horrible eventual outburst of violence. Institutional racism conditions police officers to spoil for a fight against people of color. It’s a tragic reality, the side of law enforcement that we turn a blind eye to in America, especially in our popular entertainment. Ignore Let’s Be Cops. I am not going to say that supporting it is some kind of betrayal of the common good, but for the love of God, people are being beaten and gassed in the streets. Watching a documentary that contextualizes modern day events with history is literally the least that you can do.
Let the Fire Burn is available to stream on Netflix and Amazon, among other digital outlets, and is out on DVD.