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A tragic martyr, surfer dudes, a blues legend, Instagram stars

Humza Deas, as seen in the documentary “Social Animals.”
Humza Deas, as seen in the documentary “Social Animals.”(Conscious Minds)

On June 23, 2014, Charles Moore , a 79-year-old white Methodist minister, doused himself with gasoline and burned himself to death in a parking lot in Grand Saline, Texas. He had left a note on the windshield of his car explaining that he was protesting the racism of his community and of the country in general.

Joel Fendelman’s documentary “Man on Fire” tries to understand what drove Moore, a passionate advocate for social justice whose activism began back in the early civil rights movement, to this extreme measure. He interviews family members, still traumatized by the event; older townspeople, who deny that their community is racist and surmise that Moore was crazy; young people who recall the casual racism they’ve observed at school; black people from surrounding communities, who say that they fear going into Grand Saline and avoid it; and a man who witnessed Moore’s self-immolation and can’t shake his memory of the smell of burning flesh. 

Did Moore’s act accomplish anything? It brought grief to his family but didn’t seem to change any minds. In one glimmer of hope, a black pastor newly appointed to a Grand Saline church says that his relationship with his white congregation has been “a love affair.” One person approached him after a service in tears and said he was angry at his parents for making him believe racist lies that had been passed on for generations. Then he asked for forgiveness.

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“Man on Fire” can be seen on PBS Independent Lens on Dec. 17 at 10 p.m.

Surf’s up

Jeff and Michael Zimbalist’s documentary “Momentum Generation” is worth a look, if only for its breathtaking images of surfers riding four-story-high walls of water or gliding through the curling pipe of a wave glowing azure in the sun. But it also offers the affecting drama of youths from broken families bonding together around a sport, until their success, ambition, and a tragedy threaten to split them apart. 

In the late 1980s, future surfing superstars like Kelly Slater, Rob Machado, Shane Dorian, Taylor Knox, Benji Weatherley, Kalani Robb, and Taylor Steele gravitated to Oahu’s North Shore. There they were inspired by the guru-like figure of Todd Chesser, who drove them to achieve excellence for no other reward but the thrill of the sport.

It’s like “Point Break” (1991) without the bank robbery.

Instead, these surfers cashed in on their skills by winning competitions, getting sponsors, and appearing in movies. But as they reveal in the film’s fluidly edited oral history, success, fame and wealth didn’t bring them the kind of happiness they enjoyed as kids just surfing, hanging out, playing pranks, and living for the moment.

With its impressive archival footage and one of the best soundtracks of any documentary this year, “Momentum Generation” is a zesty cure for the winter doldrums.

“Momentum Generation” can be seen on HBO.

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Blues brother

In the pantheon of deceased rock ’n’ roll superstars that includes Jimi Hendrix Janis Joplin, John Lennon, and Jim Morrison, there’s little mention of blues maestro Paul Butterfield, the subject of John Anderson’s moving documentary “Horn from the Heart: The Paul Butterfield Story.”

The Chicago-born Butterfield, who died at 44 in 1987 of a drug overdose, hung out at blues clubs on the South Side, where he was befriended by and learned from Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and James Cotton as he developed his own swaggering, furious style of playing the harmonica. In 1963, he founded the Paul Butterfield Blues Band with legendary guitarist Mike Bloomfield, and it earned a reputation among fellow musicians and blues purists for its power and authenticity. They played at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, Woodstock in 1969 , and in 2015 he and the band were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

But mainstream success eluded Butterfield, and the perils and temptations of life on the road led to addiction and early death. Despite declining health he remained an electrifying performer until the end, as seen in footage of him singing “The Sky Is Crying” backed by Stevie Ray Vaughan and B.B. King just months before he died.

“Horn from the Heart” will screen Dec. 17 at 7:30 p.m. at the Regent Theatre, Arlington. Film interview subject and renowned musician Al Kooper will participate in a post-screening discussion.

Instagram generation

Probably no generation gap has been as clearly defined as that between those who use and don’t use Instagram, Facebook’s photo- and video-sharing service. As is stated in Jonathan Ignatius Green’s documentary “Social Animals,” around a billion of the pre-teens and teens of so-called Generation Z spend much of their time obsessively checking their accounts and invest much of their self-worth in the likes and followers they compile. Green looks at three such users from varied backgrounds whose experiences range from awesome to traumatic, from success story to near tragedy. 

Fifteen-year-old beauty queen Kaylyn Slevin of Southern California, first seen sailing on a hoverboard through the corridors of her kitschy, cavernous, Versailles-like mansion while a friend shoots her on a phone, is rich, beautiful, vapid, and surprisingly unspoiled. She will post this video along with other items such as a montage of her doing gymnastics or a request for suggestions for what color to paint her bedroom. She is approaching 500,000 followers and once she reaches that mark her father, a down-to-earth car dealer, will acknowledge that she is a “brand” and give her money to start a fashion line.

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Humza Deas, 17, comes from the projects in Astoria, Queens, and to escape the streets made nocturnal trips to Manhattan to take daring, often illegal photographs from buildings and skyscrapers. Not only were his photos breathtaking, they were also beautiful, earning him a cover story in New York magazine, a gallery show, a clothing line, and an army of envious haters trolling his site.

Emma Crockett from a small town in Ohio, has only a few hundred followers but has been the target of inexplicable slut-shaming, death threats, and taunting suggestions that she should kill herself from the anonymous online bullies who go to her Christian high school. Eventually she does attempt suicide, is treated for depression, and adopts a new attitude to Instagram. Just post whatever she likes, not what will win her the approval of the digital mob. She posts a picture of a jellyfish, and when asked how many likes she got says, “I don’t know.”

“Social Animals” can be seen on iTunes and VOD.


Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.