Interview by Lucy Johnson
Copy Edited and Posted by Megan Elias
How did you hear about the self immolation of Charles Moore and how did the documentary come to fruition?
On June 23, 2014, a 79-year-old white minister, Reverend Charles Moore, drove to Grand Saline, TX and lit himself on fire in protest of the town’s racism. He left a note on his car windshield claiming that when he grew up in that town in the 1940s he remembered hearing about lynchings and the KKK and the prevalence of the town’s racism. He further stated that, even in recent years, the town had never moved past its racism. I heard about Moore’s self-immolation about five minutes after it happened. Since I grew up in Grand Saline, I have a lot of friends on social media who still live in the area, and they immediately began discussing it. However, I didn’t know his reasons for dying until two days later, when I received a copy of Moore’s “suicide” letter from the editor of the Grand Saline Sun. In Moore’s letter, he states that he remembered all the stories of racism in Grand Saline and believed the town had never moved past their racist legacy, since they have no black people in their town today. This letter destroyed me because the pain Charles talked about, the stories he remembered, were pains and stories that I had witnessed firsthand. And in this moment I knew I had to tell his story or it would be erased from public memory. I could not let that happen because Moore’s death greatly impacted me, and I knew it could impact others. So, eventually, a mutual friend got me in touch with director Joel Fendelman and we chatted for an hour and a half in November 2015 and decided to start this project.
A photo of Charles Moore, courtesy of Guy Moore, on a table
As a Latinx scholar, how has the town of Grand Saline’s history of racism factored into your own experiences growing up there? What sort of unexpected challenges accompanied the association of your own identity with the film’s content?
It wasn’t until I left Grand Saline that I truly realized the racism prevalent in the community. I was both an agent and product of racism. My nickname was “Beaner,” “Wetback,” “Sancho,” and “Sasquatch” in town. The football team’s slogan was “we’re alright cuz we’re all white.” Coaches and elders and students often said the “n-word” and said other racist things. But none of this affected me too much at the time because I was fairly popular. I just thought racism was normal. Once I moved away, I began to see how I was also an agent in spreading racism in Grand Saline. I told racist stories about people of color. I used the “n-word.” I was just as racist as anyone else in the community. And I knew I had to eventually try and change how residents talked about race. This idea also played a bit into the documentary. I wanted to talk about racism and Moore’s death but didn’t want to just paint Grand Saline as the most racist community in America. Rather, Joel and I consciously decided to let the people of Grand Saline tell their own story and have audiences take from this narrative whatever they wish. There are some easy questions to ask of Grand Saline: Why did Charles choose to die? Why is Grand Saline known as racist by outsiders? But there are no easy answers. And we wanted audiences to sit in that uneasiness.
James Chase Sanchez and Joel Fendelman present their film at the Liberty Theater in Tyler, TX
Producing Man on Fire was not only a part of your graduate work and the work of your dissertation, but has also propelled your research into other projects and endeavors. Can you tell us a little bit about how the documentary has informed your scholarly thinking?
Well, the film has changed my views on Grand Saline and my research on the rhetoric of white supremacy quite a bit. My dissertation was mostly on the rhetoric of self-immolation and a bit on the public memory of racism in Grand Saline. And the film altered how I moved from the dissertation to the book stage. While filming, I kept seeing all these various coded forms of racism via subtext, silencing of selves and others, and community-building. This made me think about how I might better discuss a rhetoric of white supremacy through looking at Grand Saline as a case study. The film directly impacted my scholarly research regarding Grand Saline and gave me various access points (interviews, footage, research) that would have been absent without the documentary.
Fellow rhetorician and filmmaker Alexandra Hidalgo told me a year ago or so that for every film she works on, she writes a scholarly piece about the film or the subject matter in the film. I am challenging myself to do the same. I eventually want to write an article about the ethics of filmmaking by using clips and raw footage from the film to frame how we talk about race because that was a central issue that kept arising during production and post-production that deserves more scholarly attention.
A quiet alley in downtown Grand Saline
Are there any other films and documentaries in the works?
Yes, we have a few different projects that are in pre-development, at different stages. We were fortunate to receive great press from Man on Fire, so we have had a few production companies reach out to us about future projects. As of now, we have two main projects: First, a story of medical racism that will explore faith, hope, and an important question—what does it mean to die? And second a story on the legacy of the Confederacy and their memory on university campuses in the South. Both of these stories highlight culture and humanity in unique ways that interest both Joel and me, and we hope to enter into production stage for one of these films in 2019.
Wiley Garland (left) and Wayne Sloan (right) discuss racism at the local coffee shop museum in Grand Saline, TX
How did your background as a cultural rhetorician help in the production work for the film?
As a rhetorician, I have often studied the rhetoric of film—focusing on editing, sound, and narrative techniques. But I never knew how I might use those skills in the actual production of a film. However, I quickly learned how much I was able to use. First, the interview techniques I learned in my Research Methods courses in grad school, and ones I used for my dissertation, were vital in doing interviews for the film. My main role as producer was to organize and conduct interviews, and the strategies I employed as a student were similar to ones I used in front of the camera. Of course, there are differences between conducting interviews for a film and doing them for research. For instance, I discovered early in the process that when someone gets emotional, I shouldn’t try to instinctually comfort them because we need to capture these raw feelings on film. My understanding of racial rhetorics was another major tool I utilized in production. Often, I was able to peel back the subtext of what white people were saying in interviews and show Joel and others how some of their language was actually coded racism. I remember one specific moment when this happened. We interviewed an elderly man in a dinner, and he told us black people don’t live in town because they don’t feel welcome because their “people” are not there. It was clear to me that this was thinly veiled racism suggesting that black people were the problem, not white people. Nonetheless, this lens helped us later in narrative construction because we could position and juxtapose certain subtle racist viewpoints in ways that some audiences might get and others might not, while still being honest to Grand Saline. Lastly, in post-production, I realized my skills as a writing storyteller easily transitioned to a documentary storytelling.
Cinematographer Caleb B. Kuntz (left) and director Joel Fendelman (right) discuss how to position the shot of Charles Moore (played by Ron Blanton) behind the fire
What advice do you have for graduate students, specifically our latinx caucus graduate students, who want to have filmmaking be part of their academic work?
The best piece of advice I could give is this: find an interesting story that you, in some way, are uniquely positioned to tell. A good story can help you meet producers, directors, and other filmmakers who can join with you on a project, because a film, unlike much of our scholarly research, is never a solo venture. It takes teams of 2 or 3 crew members at minimum. If you have never made a film before and do not have the technical skills to do so, I truly believe a good story can be your leverage in creating relationships and finding your team. So go find your story!
Man on Fire will air on Independent Lens/ PBS on Monday, December 17th at 10/9pm central time.