Today I have a review of A Time for Burning, an excellent documentary about race relations in the church in the 1960s that echoes prescience today. You can also read, rate, and comment on my review at Amazon.
A Time for Burning is a film that grabs your attention immediately, both mind and heart. This 1966 documentary shot by the Lutheran Film Associates examines the efforts of Rev. Bill Youngdahl to rally his all-white congregation to have ten families meet with ten families from an all-black congregation in their mutual city, Omaha, Nebraska. What starts as what Youngdahl calls, “Just a little thing” soon blows up into conversations political, economic, personal, ethical, and theological.
Youngdahl is a wonder to witness as he never loses his cool during his uphill battle with his congregation. His calm demeanor is matched in word and wisdom by 30-year-old black neighborhood barber, Ernie Chambers, who gives Youngdahl the foreboding warning,
“If you try to do something, you’ll get kicked out of your church” in the first six minutes of the film.
In the following scenes, several white men ask Youngdahl why the church must “be so revolutionary” with such a controversial issue, that it’s taking “a gamble,” that this potential ministry could split the church wide open and could destroy “What we’ve built up here.”
It leaves the viewer wondering, exactly what has the church built up here in terms of radical, Christ-like hospitality? The question of ethics and deferring responsibility rises every other minute throughout the film.
The hidden main protagonist is layperson Ray Christiansen, whose heart is caught in a tug-of-war, sometimes hesitant and sometimes embracing of Youngdahl’s idea. Christiansen’s personal journey is powerful to witness as he listens to men say the same hesitant things he had said only a few days before, as he listens to Chambers ask him honest questions, and as he speaks with his wife about the importance of the situation: “We’ve got our foot raised to take this first step… and we haven’t got the guts!”
For someone like me, who didn’t live through the 1960s in the US, the fear in these white persons over such a notion must be experienced to be believed. It is at once a reminder of how far we’ve come and how far we have yet to go in this journey of reconciliation. It also invokes other issues facing the church and other institutions in similar ways today. To this, Rev. Youngdahl asks an imp0rtant question for the church to consider today: “Where does the element of the prophetic come into our ministry?”
Shot in cinéma véritée or “fly on the wall” documentary style, this 55-minute film produced by Bill Jersey has editing that keeps the story engaging and is able to display stunning truth from all persons involved. In fact, the film opens with a title card reading, “This film is dedicated to the people of Omaha, NE, who openly shared their doubts and fears.” Truly, persons’ emotions are honest and starkly presented here, warts and all. A Time For Burning was nominated for Best Documentary Feature in the 1967 Academy Awards. Too controversial for the three major networks, they all passed on airing it, leaving it to PBS to run it in the midst of its historical context of the late 1960s.
The DVD presents the grainy, black-and-white film as well as it can. The image is clear and sound is well captured throughout the film, save a second here and there when the boom mic was being moved to another speaker. The commentary track features several voices including Jersey, Youngdahl, Christiansen, and Chambers and it lends engaging insight into how these men took in the events they lived and witnessed. There’s a brief biography and statement from Jersey, as well as some information on Lutheran Film Associates, still up and running at lutheranfilms.org.
A twenty-minute conversation with Ernie Chambers provides the young barber an uninterrupted pulpit several decades later and it’s from this piece that the best parts are culled together for the audio commentary. I found the original song for the film written by Tom Paxton, arranged by B.G. Kornfeld, and sung by Ronnie Gilbert to be uplifting and I wish there was more information so I could find a copy to purchase.
A surprise gem of a special feature comes in the form of trailers, something I don’t usually think of as a worthwhile special feature. Yet Docurama Films has included a solid list of information about 111 films in their catalog and a selection of eight trailers (none for A Time for Burning, sadly). The most fascinating trailer, to me, is a “commentary track” trailer of the oft-parodied Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Look Back.” That trailer tells exactly how and why Dylan made the now-famous lyric-highlighting signs and explores why it’s such an iconic image of American rock and roll.
I first experienced this film a month ago in an educated-related seminary course and have since experienced it with family and in a group discussion setting with teenagers in a church. It’s definitely an attention-grabber and students had plenty of quotes to write down which struck them to ask about or discuss. There is also a free discussion guide available online with good questions and a list of civil rights events to give the film greater historical context which can serve as a starting point for discussion. Empathy for all persons in the documentary will be key to a group viewing and discussion. For as Ray Christiansen interprets himself, “I am just such an infant that I know nothing other than the urgency.”
Thanks for reading. – thelifemosaic