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Every few years a new documentary comes along that is so powerful, so illuminating, and so unforgettable that it is deemed an instant classic and an essential classroom teaching tool. "Forgotten Fires" is such a film. This riveting exploration of the devastating consequences of racial hatred shines a profoundly revealing light into the darkest reaches of America's heart and soul.
The film investigates the burning of two African American churches in rural South Carolina by a young convert to the Ku Klux Klan. Told through remarkably frank interviews with both the victims and the perpetrators of these racial crimes, the film puts a surprisingly human face on racism, transforming a seemingly simple story of blacks and whites into a complex tale filled with endless shades of gray. What begins as an investigation into the church burnings becomes an extraordinary meditation on race relations in America today.
Filmed over a one-year period in Manning, South Carolina, "Forgotten Fires" goes behind simplistic news headlines and examines the historical, economic, and social contexts to the epidemic of church burnings in the 1990s. Skillfully interweaving Ku Klux Klan home movies with gripping live sequences, informative historical footage, and startling confessional testimony, the film traces the coming of the Klan to this sleepy rural town and shows how the group's twisted logic of racial enmity found fertile ground among the region's dirt-poor whites. In a place where blacks and whites had lived side by side for years, the fiery oratory of the Klan attracted eager white converts ready to blame their black neighbors for their own lost opportunities and impoverished lives.
One young man who found purpose in the Klan's seductive rhetoric was Timothy Welch. As a boy, he would perch in the pecan tree outside Macedonia Baptist Church and listen to the Sunday service, waiting for his black friends to come out and play. At age 23, Welch would burn that same church to the ground. He now resides in a federal prison, sentenced to 12 years for civil rights violations. Through his remarkable commentary Welch initially emerges as a starkly candid homegrown white supremacist, but his portrait gradually softens to reveal a troubled youth, with deep ties to the black community he betrayed and a burdoned conscience turning from hatred toward remorse.
Equally compelling is the quiet fortitude of black pastor Jonathan Mouzon, whose musings on the meaning of the church to the black community and its ties to the past give us a profound insight into the roots of community. His compassion for the perpetrators of the church burnings is a marvel of racial tolerance and empathy.
Rarely has a film on race relations granted such deep humanity to all its participants, and it is this inclusiveness that gives Forgotten Fires its overwhelming impact. It will inspire thought, discussion, and analysis in a wide variety of courses in American history and studies, African American studies, sociology, psychology, criminology, and multiculturalism. "Forgotten Fires" was produced by Michael Chandler and Vivian Kleiman for the Independent Television Service with funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. "Forgotten Fires" is a presentation of the Independent Television Service.
"If we wanted a real dialogue about race in America, we'd start with this film. Its strong dose of reality begs for an honest response from a wide audience." -- Bill Moyers
"A remarkable journey into a young racist mind. This film is a disturbing reminder of the attractiveness of hate to the vulnerable among us." -- Morris Dees, Southern Poverty Law Center
"The furor over church burnings in recent years often seemed to decline into the sort of political squabble in which each side merely presents the facts it deems most advantageous to previously staked-out ideological positions. This film allows us to go deeply into the interior of one of these tragedies and witness, with our own eyes, the human cost of such an event. With excruciating even-handedness and generous compassion -- even for those who might not deserve it -- the film shows us the victims and the victimizers, the blacks whose church was burned and the Klansmen who burned it, and in the process reveals the true, heartbreaking dimensions of the tragedy and the ongoing suffering and struggle for redemption of all involved. The film provides a clear window into the connections and disconnections of a small southern American town, which becomes, as the film plays on, a microcosm for the nation as a whole. It is a stunning film, deeply felt, deeply moving, and worthy of repeated viewings." -- Anthony Walton, author of "Mississippi, An American Journey" and Visiting Asst. Prof. of English, Bowdoin College
- Golden Spire Award, San Francisco Intl. Film Festival
- Gold Apple Award, Natl. Educational Film Festival
- American Psychological Assn. honoree
- Gold Medal, Flagstaff Intl. Film Festival
- Juror's Choice Award, Charlotte Film Festival
- PBS National Broadcasts