Artspan member Bill Jersey is a painter and filmmaker. He paints beautiful landscapes in oil. He made the movie Eames: The Architect and The Painter, a moving, generous portrait of husband-and-wife team of Charles and Ray Eames. And in 1967, he made A Time For Burning, which was nominated for an academy award, and has since been selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.
A Time For Burning is probably the quietest civil rights film I’ve seen. The whole film shows people talking; quietly, earnestly, discussing issues. And yet it’s an amazingly compelling 56 minutes of film. The film was shot in Omaha, Nebraska in 1966, and as one of the characters explains, it’s about Lutherans talking to Lutherans. Seemingly such a small thing, a tiny step. But it turns out to be an insurmountable step to many. The film “explores the attempts of the minister of Augustana Lutheran Church in Omaha, Nebraska, to persuade his all-white congregation to reach out to ‘negro’ Lutherans in the city’s north side.”
The pastor, Rev. L. William Youngdahl, is kind and thoughtful and well-meaning, and he loses his job over this issue. In the course of the film he encounters the remarkable Ernie Chambers, a barber who goes on to law school and then to become the longest-serving senator in the history of Nebraska. The conversations between Youngdahl and Chambers are bracing and passionate and necessary and uncomfortable. The conversations amongst the white parishioners are heartbreaking of the I-can’t-believe-anybody-ever-spoke-unashamedly-in-that-way-and-so-little-has-changed variety. The conversations amongst black teenagers (whose visit to the white church one Sunday caused the congregation to shrink) are lovely and hopeful and sharp.
But the character I found the most moving–I don’t even know his name. He had glasses with thick lenses and thick frames, in a uniquely 1960s style. At first, listening to the reverend propose his plan, this man seemed 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. The saddest thing, watching nearly fifty years later, is how little has changed. This is a painfully relevant film, and everyone should watch it.
Here’s a documentary about the film, in which directors and subjects discuss it much more intelligently than I could ever do!