A Time for Burning (1966) – PopMatters Film Review )

In 1965 the Reverend William Youngdahl moved from an integrated Lutheran church in New Jersey to an all-white congregation in Omaha, Nebraska with one goal on his mind. Documentarians Bill Jersey and Barbara Connell went along for the transition, and the resulting film, A Time for Burning, stands out as a quietly searing indictment of institutionalized American racism, probing behind the smiling Midwestern veneer of Youngdahl’s parishioners to reveal the banality of evil lurking behind the silent majority. These were the folks who elected the spiteful Richard Nixon and, as the timely DVD reissue by Docurama reminds us, the same personality types who keep brazen thieves and liars like our current commander in chief enshrined in office rather than impeached and imprisoned.

Youngdahl arrived in Omaha with a clear proselytizing imperative: to open the hearts and minds of his congregation to African Americans. To accomplish this he suggested what he saw as a cautious, moderate procedure: an interracial social exchange in which couples from his church would visit couples from the city’s black Lutheran church, and vice versa. This modest proposal would tear Youngdahl’s church into divisive factions, and A Time for Burning documents the fissures in surprising detail.

Jersey and Connell adopt a cinéma vérité approach but give the film a more structured dramatic narrative than many of their contemporaries used; in contrast to the vast expanses of nothingness employed by, say, the Maysles brothers in Salesman, A Time for Burning moves along at a clipped pace. To be sure, this is partly a result of its brevity (clocking in just under an hour), but also due to the filmmakers’ decision to center the film on three main characters, which streamlines the unwieldy rush of history into a tightly-wound story. We first meet Youngdahl, a brave but undeniably bland man dedicated to the enlightenment of his church. In the flat cadences of his Minnesota origins he lectures his congregation on the need to look past inherited prejudices; though he uses the least confrontational tone conceivable, they stare back at him with hard-set eyes that range from uninterested to hostile. The reverend then sets off to the other side of the tracks, visiting a barbershop where Jersey and Connell introduce their next protagonist, Ernie Chambers, a barber who shows all the dramatic flair Youngdahl lacks as he vigorously and articulately berates the reverend for the vestigial racism of liberal condescension. In a powerful monologue Chambers tells him, “your Jesus is contaminated,” leaving the well-intending Youngdahl to stumble out of the barbershop looking stunned into speechlessness.

The fiery black nationalist Chambers brings a vibrancy to the film, enlivening his scenes with his quick-witted anger and ability to pierce the verbal shell games of white Nebraskans. But the true dramatic heart of the film turns out to be church elder Ray Christiansen, who enters in opposition to Youngdahl’s plan for social integration. Suggesting stalling tactics and expressing fears about intra-congregational conflict, Christiansen initially seems to stand for the conservative elements, but after dialogue and debate he comes to understand the significance of breaking racial boundaries to create better understanding and becomes a passionate advocate for civil rights. At a church debate he delivers the film’s second most stirring moment; with none of Chambers’ sharpness but with a moving earnestness he wonders where the church had been during the Holocaust and tells his peers they can’t afford to make the same mistake of allowing injustice to flourish.

The parishioners, predictably, see things differently, and Jersey and Connell do a masterful job of showing the friendly face of Nebraskan racism. The title A Time for Burning, of course, conjures up images of crosses in yards, but there is no Klan here, no lynchings or violence (at least, not during the span of filming). Nor are there even the rocks thrown by angry whites at Martin Luther King, Jr. when he took the civil rights cause to Chicago in 1966. Instead, we see the passive social disapproval of families refusing to attend services when Youngdahl invites a group of black teens to visit the church. Youngdahl trying to learn reasons for opposition to his plan is like Joseph K. trying to discover the charges against him; the film depicts a Kafkaesque series of meetings full of evasion tactics and vague euphemisms. “A more general approach” is suggested by one man; another claims to support integration but calls Youngdahl’s plan “an artificial situation.” Yet another opponent feigns support but politely suggests the reverend stop “harping on this idea of civil rights.” “Take it step by step,” suggests one more conservative, leaving an exasperated Christiansen to ask how much smaller a step than social meetings could possibly be taken.

In these confrontations, discussions and debates — which form the general body of the film — the participants sometimes show an awareness of the camera, but they never come off as overly performative. Far from the casts of contemporary reality-TV shows who know the world is watching, the Omahans go about their arguments with plain-spoken directness, rarely attempting to mediate their presentation for an audience. The intransigent white Lutherans are, however, always careful to avoid any outward indication of their undeniable racism. Thus when one man explains the “deterioration of neighborhoods” that results from “multiple-family residences,” he’s quick to add that he’s talking not only about blacks, but “Mexicans, too,” as if that distinguishes him from a tobacco-chewing southerner using equally transparent codewords such as “social equality” to rationalize his stance.

The film reaches its climax with a meeting between Christiansen and Chambers, in which the black radical clearly catches the white liberal off guard by castigating him for his dishonesty in refusing to admit the racism of his peers rather than congratulating him for his benevolence. The directors manage to incorporate a vast expanse of conflicted feelings into the scene, showing the immense difficulty of reaching common ground when white liberals went beyond the white social consensus but settled for projects far too weak to interrogate the deep-rooted structure of racism, while an informed black underclass took little solace from superficial gestures they not incorrectly saw as designed more to assuage white guilt than improve the objective conditions of ghetto life.

A Time for Burning offers no easy answers to these quandaries, and it concludes without resolution on a down note. Anything else would be dishonest, and the film was clearly intended to shake the complacency of a white audience by forcing viewers to see themselves in the Omaha resistance. The meek television networks understood how unsettling this might prove; Jersey and Connell shot the film for television but released it theatrically after no networks would air it. It ended up nominated for a Best Documentary Academy Award in 1968, losing to the similarly progressive Vietnam film The Anderson Platoon.

Docurama’s DVD edition offers a few extras, including a disappointing commentary track featuring each of the three main characters, but clearly punched together from isolated monologues rather than from a group discussion, which would have been much more interesting. The best extra, though, more than compensates: “Update: Ernie Chambers 40 Years Later” almost invites trepidation as one hits the button to begin it. The story of 1960s black radicalism is so riddled with tragedy, from the murdered Malcolm X and Fred Hampton to the squandered Huey Newton and Bobby Seale to the cosmically bizarre born-again Republican Eldridge Cleaver, that expectations can’t help but be grim. But Chambers surprises and inspires: elected to the Nebraska State Legislature in 1970, he’s been there ever since-the longest-serving state congressman in Nebraska history, and currently the only African American in the unicameral body (America’s only such state legislature).

Amazingly, politics has not corrupted Chambers, and he remains as radical as ever. In a 20-minute feature he calls white people “as a group, the enemy of black people,” scorns Clarence Thomas, Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell as “race traitors,” and explains his support for gay marriage rights: “If you Christians could keep your noses out of other people’s crotches,” he sighs, before making the same case he made in the film nearly 40 years earlier: modern institutionalized Christianity has grown so corrupt it doesn’t deserve the name. WWJD? Not what white Omahans did in the 1960s, pretending a racial crisis meant less than congregational social harmony, and not what the Nebraska Legislature did in 2004, passing a term-limit law directly aimed at driving the outspoken Chambers out of its chambers (he has until 2008, when his limit expires, to continue serving; on his fascinating political career, see Sara Catania’s current Mother Jones article on him).

Watching the well-mannered white citizens of Omaha hem and haw about why a simple plan of establishing a cross-racial social dialogue would be moving too fast too soon, one can’t help but be reminded of Ward Churchill’s “little Eichmanns” comment. After all, what did these decent folk finally do to resolve racial inequalities? Well, they elected Nixon, whose policy of “benign neglect” meant letting the inner city fester and rot. They ushered in Ronald Reagan, whose expansion of the prison system and unfounded “war on drugs” led to the disproportionate incarceration of an entire generation of young inner-city black men. Then they topped it all off with George W. Bush, who won’t even speak to the NAACP and who, as Kanye West reminded us, “doesn’t care about black people.” The issues raised by A Time for Burning are unsettling enough as it is; seen with the awareness of how history has played out, the film is downright devastating in its depiction of one small, awkward attempt at racial reconciliation in America, and one giant, whooping refusal by a white supremacist status quo.