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Sad But Significant: 'Man on Fire' on PBS
December 17, 2018  | By David Hinckley
 
 
The Rev. Charles Moore’s final call for justice in America involved setting himself on fire.
 
On the warm afternoon of June 23, 2014, the 79-year-old minister drove to his hometown of Grand Saline, Texas, left his car, walked to the parking lot of the Dollar General store, paced around a while, poured gasoline on himself and lit a match.
 
Man On Fire, which airs Monday at 10 p.m. ET (check local listings) in the PBS Independent Lens series, tries to explain this. In some ways, the documentary may leave viewers more unsettled than the act itself.
 
Moore (right) left a note on the windshield of his car (top) saying he wanted to call attention to racism – America's, in general, and that of his hometown, Grand Saline, in particular.
 
In many ways, Joel Fendelman’s documentary suggests, Moore had been writing that note his whole life.
 
Not that we hear that much about Moore’s life. Interviews here with several dozen ministers, relatives, parishioners, and townspeople paint a broad, often-sketchy picture of a minister impassioned with what he saw as his calling to eradicate injustice.
 
Fendelman focuses more on Grand Saline, talking to various people about whether its wholesome, small-town, all-American veneer masks a toxic legacy of racism.
 
Grand Saline’s 3,266 residents seem to be all white. There are stories, recounted by black interviewees in neighboring towns, that Grand Saline never had any use for black folks. That there were lynchings. That blacks were expected to be out of town by sundown.
 
White town officials and the head of the Chamber of Commerce, among others, dismiss almost all of that as just stories someone invented.
 
More recent and concrete is the recollection by a young woman that when she dated a black man in high school, they were routinely harassed. She heard the n-word, she says, every day. A black former high school basketball player says that when his team was bused in to play Grand Saline, it had a police escort in and out of town.
 
At the same time, a black minister who filled in at a Protestant church in Grand Saline around the time Moore killed himself says his experience was “loving.” He recounts how one white parishioner came up to him and apologized because he had been brought up to think he hated black people and now realized he didn’t.
 
Man On Fire researches the lynching stories in a limited way when the county historian says he only knows of one case: that a white doctor was killed and beheaded for treating black patients.
 
A white town councilman tells Fendelman no one should even be bringing up the subject of racism because everyone in town knows there is none.
 
Cumulatively, Man On Fire paints Grand Saline as a classic small-town community. There’s Friday night football, a holiday parade, the Bingo hall and retired mine workers getting together to play dominoes. 
 
Nothing looks menacing.
 
Yet black folks from nearby places say oh yes, the word has always been out on Grand Saline. Don’t go there. You are not welcome.
 
The Rev. Charles Moore left Grand Saline and traveled around the world aggressively promoting social justice – for blacks, for women, for the LGBTQ community. He lived for two years in India. He moved his family to the West Side of Chicago.
 
Friends, neighbors, and relatives recall him as driven, and the best speculation is that in the end, he felt what he had done in his first 79 years was not enough, because the problem was still there.
 
So setting himself on fire was a final cry for Grand Saline and the world to pay attention – not to him, just to what he was saying.
 
In that sense, Man On Fire follows his wishes. It’s not a documentary on Charles Moore. It’s a look at the things Charles Moore spent his life preaching about.
 
It isn’t as declarative as Moore clearly was. That doesn’t make it any less disturbing.
 
 
 
 
 
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