A Time for Burning is is an amazingly compelling film about conversations. Throughout the entire remarkable 58 minutes, we see “ordinary” people holding quiet, earnest discussions in the homes, barbershops, and churches of Omaha, Nebraska. The film, by documentary filmmakers Barbara Connell and Bill Jersey, follows the attempts of Rev. L. William Youngdahl, the minister of Augustana Lutheran Church, to persuade his all-white congregation to reach out to black Lutherans in the city’s north side. The pastor is kind and thoughtful and well-meaning, but his attempts fail, and he loses his job over this issue. Throughout the film, the conversations are fraught and depressingly honest, and they show us how deeply rooted prejudice is in our history, how much it is part of our every assumption, our daily lives, the fabric of our society. But it also shows us that conversation and connection can, slowly slowly, agonizingly slowly, bring about change. Change that radiates from the lives of individuals to the world as we know it now, and as we hope to see it in the future.
In the course of the film the reverend encounters the remarkable Ernie Chambers. At the time of filming, Chambers is a barber but he will on to law school and then to become the longest-serving senator in the history of Nebraska. He is a product of his time, ahead of his time, and operating on a different timeline than everybody else in the film, and wtih a different level of understanding. He seems to see everything, and he expresses it quietly, but with devastating clarity. The conversations between Youngdahl and Chambers are bracing and passionate and necessary and uncomfortable. “You did not take over this country by singing We Shall Overcome,” Chambers tells him, while cutting someone’s hair. “You did not gain control over the world by dealing fairly. You’re treaty breakers. You’re liars. You’re thieves. You rape entire continents and races of people. Your religion means nothing. Your law is a farce.”
His sharpness is in stark contrast to the white parishioners, who are blind and backwards, mired in ignorance, hatred, and fear. The conversations amongst the white parishioners are heartbreaking. I can’t believe anybody ever felt that way. I can’t believe people expressed those feelings with no shame, no sense of self-doubt or self-awareness. And I can’t believe how little has changed. “This one lady said to me, ‘pastor’, she said, ‘I want them to have everything I have, I want God to bless them as much as he blesses me, but’, she says, ‘pastor, I just can’t be in the same room with them, it just bothers me.”
The conversations amongst black teenagers (whose visit to the white church one Sunday caused the congregation to shrink) are lovely and hopeful and sharp. They recognize and condemn hypocrisy, but they’re humblingly generous and understanding of human frailty. We have hope for their future, which is now our past, but feels so much a part of our present. And the world we want to see for them still seems a distance away before us.
One of the characters I almost found most moving was a man who slowly, painfully, changes his ideas. He has glasses with thick lenses and thick frames, in a uniquely 1960s style. At first, listening to the reverend propose his plan, this man seems myopic, doubtful and unsure. It would be easier, after all, to ignore the situation altogether. But over the course of the film we watch him change, incredibly change. He starts to question what it means to be human, what it means to be the person he is, in the time and place that he lives. He thinks about kindness, justice, history, his faith, his family, the future of mankind. He says he’s like a newborn, two weeks old, and the world is changing all around him. He thinks about the history of his country and the history of oppression. He recognizes how simple, how monumental this one small step would be, and he’s desperate to take it. He’s conscious of the way the country is changing all around him, in that moment, and he wants to be part of it.
It’s hopeful, but a slow, sad hope. The saddest thing, watching more than fifty years later, is how little has changed. This is a painfully relevant film, and everyone should watch it.