#423) A Time for Burning (1966)

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#423) A Time for Burning (1966)

Directed by William C. Jersey and Barbara Connell

Class of 2005

The Plot: It’s 1966 and racial tensions are running high in Omaha, Nebraska. Reverend L. William Youngdahl, the newly appointed minister of Augustana Lutheran Church, proposes that his all-white congregation reach out to the African-American Lutheran community in a series of integrated meetings. Thanks to the cinema verite approach of William C. Jersey and Barbara Connell, we witness the pushback Youngdahl receives from his congregation, who all support civil rights, but would rather not deal with it in their own church. Also on hand is a very vocal African-American community (including future politician Ernie Chambers) who aren’t too keen on helping the white community clean up their own mess.

Why It Matters: The NFR salutes the film’s cinematography (“some of the best observational ‘fly on the wall’ footage ever filmed”) and cribs from Fred Friendly’s praise of “the best civil rights film ever made”. There’s also a detailed essay by AMPAS documentary curator Ed Carter.

But Does It Really?: I definitely appreciated “A Time for Burning” more than I enjoyed watching it. While the film is an hour of mostly white people talking around their own prejudice, the film avoids the extremes of most civil rights documentaries. There are no cross-burning klan members or empowering activists to be seen, just ordinary people trying to make sense of the changing political world around them. There are more entertaining documents of this era out there, but “A Time for Burning” offers a more realistic approach with its share of current-day parallels. A pass for “A Time for Burning” and its NFR inclusion.

Everybody Gets One: Bill Jersey was commissioned by Lutheran Film Associates to create a film that would help church members understand and deal with the social issues of the day. Jersey choose Omaha’s ongoing racial tensions because he wanted to show America that civil rights issues existed not just in the south, but in America’s heartland. Barbara Connell was hired as Bill Jersey’s secretary, but Jersey recognized her potential as a filmmaker and brought her along for the shoot. “Burning” was Connell’s first film.

Seriously, Oscars?: After being broadcast on the soon-to-be-extinct NET station, “A Time for Burning” had a brief theatrical run, and was nominated for a Best Documentary Oscar. The winner that year – “The Anderson Platoon” – tackled another important social issue of the day: the Vietnam War.

Other notes

  • It’s never good when your city is so well known for its civil disorder it has its own Wikipedia page. Shortly after filming of “Burning”, two separate race riots occurred in Omaha during the summer of 1966. “Burning” captures a city just before it reaches the boiling point.
  • The black barber who appears throughout the movie is Ernie Chambers. His steadfast refusal to let the white citizens off the hook is your first tip that this isn’t going to be your feel-good-in-hindsight take on civil rights. In 1970, Chambers was elected Senator to the Nebraska State Legislature, and is the longest serving state senator in Nebraska history.
  • The unavoidable problem with this movie is that it’s all talk, no action. Yes, what is being discussed is important, but it’s hard to engage with a movie that is several scenes of people talking around the issue. The fact that there was ultimately no action that came from these talks makes the viewing experience even more frustrating.
  • Also not helping: the film’s white protagonists look and sound like the salesmen from “Salesman”.
  • I purposefully don’t do a lot of research before viewing these films, so that I can just be in the moment with the film. Imagine my surprise when not only does Augustana Lutheran fail to integrate, but Reverend Youngdahl is asked to resign! The ending is spent with the remaining congregation justifying their decision not to meet with Calvin Memorial Baptist. Only church member Ray Christensen stands by the reverend after his resignation. When told that the African-American community’s day will come, Christensen prophetically asks, “How many days are left?”

Legacy

  • Sadly, Barbara Connell died in a car accident in 1972; “Burning” was her only film as a director.
  • Bill Jersey continues to make documentaries to this day. Past subjects have included former Chief Justice Earl Warren, the legacy of Jim Crow laws, and fellow NFR movie “Amadeus”.
  • Although Pastor Youngdahl’s initial efforts failed, Augustana Lutheran created a similar outreach program in 1968 with Project Embrace. Over 50 years later, the program and the church are still going.

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