Grand Saline, Texas, a small-town of about 3,000 people a little ways out from Dallas, seems like any number of small towns dotting the Bible belt. Known primarily for its massive salt deposits owned by Morton Salt (“If you eat a pretzel in America, you’re eating our salt!”), the town seems the rare holdout among the economically depressed blue collar hamlets of the region. The people seem proud and happy. There’s a bingo parlor where chubby old coots gather to play dominos; a knick-knack shack ran by an aged, ponytailed hippie; a raucous high school that celebrates graduation with a giant bonfire. As one man puts it, it’s a boring place to grow up but a wonderful one to raise a family.
So what then inspired Charles R. Moore, the local retired Methodist minister, to douse himself in gasoline in a shopping center parking lot and light himself on fire in June 2014? What could drive such a peaceful man to such a gruesome, violent end in an otherwise picturesque town? For that we must turn to his suicide note, in which Moore declared it was one last desperate protest against Grand Saline’s unapologetic racist past, an act of self-immolation consciously modeled on the public suicides committed by Buddhist monks in the 1960s against the South Vietnamese government. But instead of being heralded as a hero and a martyr, Moore’s actions were met with confusion, outrage, and even public indifference. How could such a valiant act be so coolly received? This is the question Joel Fendelman’s documentary Man on Fire tries—and mostly succeeds—to answer.
The film is a kaleidoscopic exploration of Grand Saline itself, briefly explaining Moore’s backstory, suicide, and legacy before devoting the rest of its time interrogating a wide sampling of its townspeople. Curiously, everyone has a different idea of Grand Saline and whether or not its racism necessitated or justified Moore’s sacrifice. The few women interviewed are highly critical: one recounts how she was called a N-word lover for dating a black guy in high school; another tearfully recounts how her high school acting class forced its students to perform exercise scenes in a “ghetto” style (the film takes great pains to show that she’s one of the town’s only registered Democrats). The men are much more defensive. Many outright deny any lingering racial resentment, one even indignantly declaring “we’ve got a black president!” Another combatively asks the filmmaker if they can find a town that ISN’T a “little racist.”
But it’s when the film goes outside Grand Saline to interview black townspeople and clergy from surrounding communities that things come into sharper focus. A shopkeeper from Mineola (13 miles away) whispers rumors that the town might still be a stronghold for the Ku Klux Klan. An employee from a vineyard outside Tyler (38 miles away) says that black people have always felt a miasmic sense of menace when they enter Grand Saline. Others recall that not too long ago it was a Sundown Town; they had two signs at either end of the town limits threatening black people not to get caught there at night. (“Those signs have disappeared, but I guarantee you one of them is hanging in someone’s parlor,” one shopkeeper sighs.)
While Man on Fire does an admirable job demonstrating the racism within Grand Saline, it does relatively little to interrogate it and relate it to Moore’s suicide. Moore comes off as a mentally-unstable eccentric whose death resulted from a fit of righteous pique, something not helped by the obnoxious insert shots of an actor re-enacting his self-immolation as tragic music swells in the background. The film is also hobbled by its one hour runtime: it’s short length keeps it from contextualizing Grand Saline within the larger legacy of American slavery and racial resentment, exploring Moore’s significant contributions to women’s rights and gay rights causes, and considering the suicide from the perspective of the modern Black Lives Matter movement. There’s no excuse for Fendelman failing to mention that Moore’s death came a mere two months before the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the flashpoint of today’s Civil Rights movement. There is a strong, powerful tragedy to Moore’s death: it he had waited just a few weeks to kill himself, he would have been honored as the martyr he believed himself to be instead of largely going unnoticed outside Grand Saline. That’s the film’s loss.