When I think about it, Let the Fire Burn has always been about childhood. I was an eleven-year-old growing up in Philadelphia when the fire happened.
Childhood—for those of us lucky enough to have one—is really all about your parents sheltering you and protecting you. In order to better protect you, they tell a little white lie. The nature of that lie is that it’s all going to be okay, that the world is a fair place, that if you do good and play by the rules, everything will turn out alright.
So, childhood has an expiration date. There is a point in everyone’s life—often a traumatic event—when the bubble created by that white lie bursts. There is a moment when we all realize the harsh truth: the world is not a fair place.
At eleven, the events of May 13, 1985, scared me. It was impossible to avoid the images on TV, the smoke on the skyline, the tension everywhere. As a child, I was unprepared with the ready-made frames that adults use to help explain and thus emotionally negotiate public tragedies—and this was tragedy, destruction, and injustice on an epic scale. It happened in the place where I lived, and it was perpetrated on children. As a child, I could not comfortably put this event in a box and label it as an example of racism, or police brutality, or even war. In my childhood bubble, I did not yet have a context for these things. However, I knew intrinsically that the children were not to blame and that a fundamental injustice had occurred.
The world is not a fair place.
I think that art is all about making something out of the things that really bother us, frighten us, upset us, make us mad, make us sad…. Rationally, we know that we cannot fix these things. A movie is not going to fundamentally change the nature of reality. But art is not rational. We have an overwhelming need to understand. So we tell stories, paint pictures, and make films to digest, to grapple, and to remember.
A film cannot bring justice to the deaths of eleven people, but an additional injustice is done when this history goes unremembered. This is too powerful and important a story to be forgotten.
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In memory of Michael Moses Ward 1971–2013.