Racism, Repenting Explored in “Man on Fire”

By EZRA NUGIEL

On Wednesday April 4, the College held a special screening of the documentary film “Man on Fire.” Students, professors, visiting historians and town residents alike filled the stadium seats in Dana Auditorium for the presentation, which was sponsored by the Writing and Rhetoric Program and the Film and Media Culture Department.

The documentary is about Grand Saline, Texas, a 3,000-person town east of Dallas that has a history of racism that the community does not talk about. In June of 2014, an elderly Methodist minister named Charles Moore committed suicide by lighting himself on fire to protest racism in the town. This act of sacrifice is known as self-immolation.

He parked his car in a shopping center parking lot, poured gasoline on himself, then set himself ablaze. Moore left a typed note on his car urging the community of Grand Saline and the United States to repent for its racism.

The film compiles interviews of Grand Saline residents that illustrate a vast range of opinions regarding Grand Saline’s racist history and reactions to Moore’s demonstration. One interview mentions an area nicknamed “Pole town” referencing a place in Grand Saline where black bodies used to be displayed on poles after being lynched. Another interview mentioned the existence of signs that read “Don’t Let The Sun Set On Your Black Ass” and how rare it was to see a black person walking around town.

Other interviews provided an account in direct opposition. Most residents believed the town possessed absolutely no issues with racism and that Moore was unwarranted in his protest.

Strategically layered within these interview clips are graphic, yet artistically shot, clips that reenacted Moore’s self-immolation. The cinematography employs soft focus to mitigate the graphic nature of the content, but the heart-wrenching shots force the audience to confront the implication of Moore’s violent death.

A stirring moment in the film features an interview that claims Grand Saline does not need to have conversations about racism. Then, immediately following, is a series of skillfully constructed shots displaying a Grand Saline High School pep rally, in which people wear shirts with images and words associated with native people. These shots pass by beautifully and silently.

Special guests of this screening included the director of the film, Joel Fendelman, along with producer Dr. James Chase Sanchez. Fendelman has written, produced and directed a number of award-winning narrative and documentary films. His work has been screened at film festivals such as Tribeca, Slamdance and Montreal.

James Chase Sanchez is a native of Grand Saline, Texas and an assistant professor of writing at Middlebury College where he researches cultural rhetoric and public memory. He has been published in journals such as “College Composition & Communication” and “The Journal of Contemporary Rhetoric.” He wrote his dissertation entitled “Preaching Behind the Fiery Pulpit: Rhetoric, Self-Immolation, and Public Memory” on the Charles Moore incident.

“Man on Fire” affords audience members a story with a unique perspective on modern racism. This film elucidates how many in this country still believe that electing a black president has solved the issue of racism. 

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Racism, Repenting Explored in “Man on Fire”