By Charles Hallman
A toxic waste landfill in Warren County, North Carolina, a predominantly Black community that “galvanized the nation to talk about environmental racism,” was among the toxic dump sites featured in a recent PBS documentary on the environmental movement, which started in the 1960s.
“A Fierce Green Fire” premiered nationally on April 22 on PBS as part of the network’s American Masters series. The one-hour film was inspired by the book of the same name by environmental journalist Philip Shabecoff, who’s also featured in the documentary.
“You could say this was the biggest movement the world has ever seen,” said Oscar-nominated director Mark Kitchell, who wrote, produced and directed the film, in a recent MSR phone interview. “I really wanted to be the first to put it all together” on film, he added. “It was a privilege and an honor and a challenge to do that.”
The one-hour film “unfolds in five acts, each with a central story and character,” and features narrations by Green For All founder Van Jones; actors Meryl Streep, Robert Redford and Ashley Judd; and writer Isabel Allende, along with archival footage and new interviews.
“We were looking for the right story,” Kitchell said on the Warren County segment in the film, noting that he “stumbled upon” several books by Robert Bullard, a pioneering environmental justice advocate, who wrote about toxic dumping in several Southern states. “His work was so helpful, [but] I didn’t know about this one county,” said Kitchell, adding that the Black county and other such stories were important because they brought to light the importance of environmental racism.
“I can understand how environmental groups didn’t get it,” he said on environmental racism issues, “but I didn’t understand why the Civil Rights Movement didn’t get the issue. That I found real interesting.”
The environmental movement “from its early days as conservation started out as White and male and upper middle class, about saving beautiful places, rural places or wild places,” said Kitchell. “It was a real change for that movement to go through from that to more urban style, and poor people and people of color broadening it.”
However, asked why more Blacks aren’t involved in the issue, Kitchell said, “I think Black people do get turned on to these issues but only when it affects them.” He continued that from the beginning in the 1960s, the environmental movement “was a stepchild — the last movement, the last issue to get attention” from elected officials and the public.
“The environmental movement never was able to put much pressure on politicians or swing elections,” he recalled. “[Officials] delay and deny… It usually takes a crisis — the last one was on that coal chemical spilled in the drinking water in Charleston, West Virginia — for government to react.”
On Streep, Judd and Redford’s involvement, “I have to say that we were lucky,” said Kitchell. Jones narrated the third act on alternative energy and Greenpeace’s campaigns to save whales and baby harp seals.
“People were telling me that everybody had to be a star or an actor, but I wanted people from other walks of life,” said Kitchell. “[Jones is] known as this great Black intellectual. He’s got that great voice and I wanted that kind of reputation. We asked and he said yes…
“We hope to do some follow-up films, more on the future than on the past,” concluded Kitchell.
Green Fire will stream on the American Masters website for six weeks (www.pbs.org/americanmasters).
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman @ spokesman-recorder.com.