Grand Saline, Texas, a town east of Dallas, has a history of racism, a history the community doesn’t talk about. This shroud of secrecy ended when Charles Moore, an elderly white preacher, self-immolated to protest the town's racism in 2014, shining a spotlight on the town’s dark past. “Man on Fire” untangles the pieces of this protest and questions the racism in Grand Saline today.

 

DIRECTOR’S STATEMENT

On one level, “Man on Fire” is an investigation into the human spirit. As Charles Moore said in his “suicide” letter, “Our human race is impressed most of all with innocent suffering, and is moved significantly by little else. It isn’t important that I be remembered, but that someone cared enough to give up everything for the sake of others.” These words hold truth for us as a society, yet I, and others, question why someone chose this extreme measure to get our attention. I believe everyone has a piece of Moore in them, whether they are aware of it or not. This yearning to do more, to help others, to sacrifice for the larger good, compels our humanity. So when someone like Moore comes around, at least on the surface, we find ourselves awestruck, riddled with contradicting emotions. On one hand, we see the goodness in Moore, the love of humanity that compelled his actions; yet, on the other hand, the pain of his death overwhelms us too. This complexity was compounded with questions that others were asking in and around Grand Saline: Why did he do it? Is racism still in Grand Saline? Did he actually change anything? These questions were the seeds we planted, and through the process of filming, nurtured, in order to give some semblance of resolve for such an extreme act. Unfortunately (but also quite naturally), the answers to these questions are not so “black and white.” Thus, I hope this film inspires others to also ask these questions and sparks a real conversation on Moore’s death and the reality of racism. Inevitably, some people will write off Moore as crazy, using facts such as “we got a black president” (a quote from the film) to claim that racism doesn‘t exist anymore. However, I believe the answers are more complicated than that. “Man on Fire” uses Moore’s self-immolation as a vehicle to explore this small, mostly white town known for its racism. Moore’s death thus becomes the means to scratch beneath the surface of Grand Saline. The film captures the reality of small town Texas, illustrating Friday night football games, rodeos, homecoming parades, skating rinks, flea market sales, local businesses, and more. Nonetheless, the town of Grand Saline is just a microcosm for the rural south and inevitably America as a whole.

Joel Fendelman, Director of “Man on Fire”

 
Joel’s disquieting film explores the length one White preacher was willing to go to remind us of our racist history. Like the Buddhist monks whose suicide by fire raised awareness for their cause, some see his act of self-immolation as a radical protest, others believe it’s a sign of mental illness, some feel it’s the ultimate sacrifice. At a time when we’re grappling to define a collective history, this story illustrates how difficult it is to find common language, let alone common ground.
— Lois Vossen, Executive Producer, PBS Independent Lens
Whether religious or not, each successive generation inherits a history that must be reckoned with. Here is a film that hopefully will encourage you to find a language for this reckoning, and to speak it.
— ELIZABETH PROUTY, CO-CAPTAIN Documentary Program, SLAMDANCE Film Festival