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Middlebury professor examines his hometown's racism in documentary

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Posted on December 13, 2018 |
By Christopher Ross



racism movie James Charles Sanchez_3964.jpg
JAMES CHASE SANCHEZ, assistant professor of writing and rhetoric at Middlebury College, produced a documentary film exploring the racist underbelly of his hometown of Grand Saline, Texas, which in 2014 inspired a white minster to set himself on fire in protest. PBS will broadcast the film, “Man on Fire,” Dec. 17. Independent photo/Christopher Ross

MIDDLEBURY — On June 23, 2014, while Middlebury College professor James Chase Sanchez was writing about protest and sacrifice for his PhD, a white man in his hometown of Grand Saline, Texas, set himself on fire to protest that town’s racism.

Though Sanchez was more than 100 miles away at the time, the event would forever change his life. Not only did he refocus his entire PhD dissertation at Texas Christian University because of it, but in early 2016 he agreed to produce a documentary film about it.

On Dec. 17, PBS-TV will broadcast that film, “Man on Fire,” as part of its Independent Lens series, which on Monday nights showcases award-winning documentaries.

The 54-minute film tells the story of Charles Moore, 79, a Methodist minister who on that fateful day believed he was sacrificing himself for a larger cause.

“Many African Americans were lynched around here, probably some in Grand Saline: hanged, decapitated and burned, some while still alive,” Moore had written in a note he attached to his car’s windshield. “The vision of them haunts me greatly. So, at this late date, I have decided to join them by giving my body to be burned, with love in my heart not only for them but also for the perpetrators of such horror — but especially for the citizens of Grand Saline, many of whom have been very kind to me and others who may be moved to change the situation here.”

“Man on Fire” includes reactions from various white Grand Saline residents, many of whom dismiss their town’s alleged racist history.

THE MAIN STREET of Grand Saline is not that dissimilar to many in Texas, nor like downtowns in small towns across the country.

Photo courtesy of James Chase Sanchez 

But Sanchez’s own experiences, as he tells them, prove the deniers wrong. In the early 2000s he went to high school in Grand Saline, which is 66 miles east of Dallas. As a student and football player he regularly endured anti-Mexican nicknames like “wetback” and “beaner.” During his freshman and sophomore years, the football team’s slogan was “We’re all right cuz we’re all white,” he said. Ironically, in spite of that, Sanchez was a popular kid. His senior year he was voted homecoming king. It wasn’t until he moved away that he began to understand his experiences.

“I heard so many racist things being said by students and elders in the community — coaches, teachers, other people,” Sanchez said. “I looked back and I realized: I don’t want other people to live through that.” He also realized that by participating in his school’s social life he had unwittingly participated in the spread of white supremacy. “So in some sense I see the film as an extension of my own reconciliation with the town.”

PASTOR IRA JONES tells documentary filmmakers Joel Fendelman (director) and James Chase Sanchez (producer) about his experiences in the mostly white town of Grand Saline, Texas, which has earned a reputation for being hostile — and sometimes violent — toward people of color. 

Photo courtesy of James Chase Sanchez 

In deciding to produce “Man on Fire,” Sanchez also drew on his personal experiences while writing about Grand Saline for his PhD dissertation. One of his subjects, Moore’s stepdaughter Kathy Renfro, who would later appear in the film, had blamed Moore for the stress she believed caused her mother’s death, just three months after Moore’s.

“If Charles’s death allows you to explore the racism in Grand Saline, then it’s the only good that could ever come from this,” she had told Sanchez.

In that moment, Sanchez recalled, “I felt this sense of burden, as if Charles’s story and mine were intertwined, and I had to get this out there in some capacity.”

Because of his familiarity with Grand Saline and its residents, Sanchez arranged and conducted nearly all of the film’s interviews, but this was no easy task. Much of the town regarded him and director Joel Fendelman with deep suspicion, assuming their project would turn out to be a Michael Moore-style “hit job,” he said. Some residents agreed to be interviewed but then never showed up. During one of the film crew’s visits “the school superintendent discouraged us from coming to a Friday night football game because ‘something might happen.’ And I was like, ‘Is that a veiled threat?’” During another visit, Sanchez accepted a Facebook friend request from the Grand Saline police chief, who two days later “unfriended” him.

The project also strained some of Sanchez’s hometown friendships, especially with former classmates familiar with the liberal political slant of his work. Some of them turned their backs.

“Eventually, I had to ask myself: What is more valuable here? Truth? Or friendships?”

IN "MAN ON Fire,” a documentary film produced by Middlebury College professor James Chase Sanchez, residents of  Grand Saline, Texas, Wayne Sloane (left) and Wiley Garland discuss the death of local minister Charles Moore, who set himself on fire to protest their town’s alleged racist history.

Photo courtesy of James Chase Sanchez

Ultimately, he and Fendelman wanted to let Grand Saline speak on its own terms, Sanchez said. There is no voiceover narration in “Man on Fire,” no commentary from “experts” or academics.

“The story is complex,” he acknowledged. “Audiences should sit with it and ask, What does this mean? What did Charles Moore die for? Is it like this in my own town?”

In his director’s statement, Fendelman highlighted that complexity.

“On one level, ‘Man on Fire’ is an investigation into the human spirit,” Sanchez said. “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.”

Sanchez is happy to see the film winning awards and gaining a wider audience (it can also be viewed on streaming services like Kanopy), but his work is far from done, he said. He plans to write a book about Grand Saline, tentatively titled “Salt of the Earth: The Rhetoric of White Supremacy,” and he hopes to make at least two more films with Fendelman — one about medical racism and another about Confederate monuments.

Sanchez’s final act in Grand Saline may further anger its residents, but it won’t happen for another six years.

“I want to install a historical monument commemorating Moore’s self-immolation,” he said. According to Texas law Sanchez will have to wait until 10 years after the event to apply for permission to erect a monument, so he’ll wait.

“But on June 23, 2024, I’ll be there, filling out the paperwork.”

For more about “Man on Fire,” visit manonfirefilm.com.

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