Judge Jennifer Malkowski always makes time for burning, but she burns cookies and she prefers using the oven rather than "the fires of Hell."
"It's not the religion [that's wrong], it's the people. I mean the people make up the church, don't they?"
The above quotation is just one of the hundred or so thought-provoking, casual statements to come out of A Time for Burning. This 1967 documentary is not often discussed among the great vérité films of that decade, but it certainly offers a hard look at the painful, frustrating, sometimes impossible process of changing white minds in the civil rights era.
Facts of the Case
Director Bill Jersey examines a Lutheran church in Omaha, Neb., as a microcosm for the range of tolerance, ignorant, and hateful feelings white Christians had toward African-Americans in the '60s. Bob Youngdahl is a pastor at Augustana Lutheran Church and is determined to guide his congregation toward a greater understanding and acceptance of their fellow Christians who just happen to be black. As a baby step toward an eventual integration of the church, Pastor Youngdahl proposes a program: ten couples from Augustana's congregation would visit the homes of ten black families from a nearby black Lutheran church. Though he manages to enlighten several members of the church, his program is so controversial and so offensive to some that the question becomes whether he will be able to keep his job rather than whether the visitations will ever happen.
On the commentary track with Jersey, the director recalls that he worried about making this a "talking heads" documentary, but then realized that the action was missing for a reason. "Inaction was the action," he says. "Meeting after meeting was held, but there was no meeting of the minds." This comment sums up the tone of the film nicely. People talk and talk and say amazing, raw, honest things that just don't connect with their listeners as strongly as they did with me as I was watching. It's a film of missed opportunities, hard lessons, and a few isolated incidents of genuine change for the better scattered among many more instances of stubborn resistance. With a running time of only 58 minutes, the incessant inaction remains poignant without devolving into boring.
The most moving transformation happens to Ray, a member of the congregation and the church council who initially opposes Pastor Youngdahl's program. At an initial small meeting about whether to propose the program to the church members, he protests, "I feel there are so many areas we could work in and why pick this one to start out with? In a hundred years, the social ministry committee has done nothing and now we start out with the most controversial issue we could." Just a few weeks later, he admits to having his eyes opened about race relations and now pursues the program with a surprising sense of urgency. He pleads with the other council members, "If we do not start now as a church, the world is going to pass us by on the biggest issue of our lifetime," even comparing the situation to Nazi Germany.
While it is inspiring to see such a drastic and positive change in this man, Jersey doesn't let him serve as an easy answer or a happy ending. In another scene, he provides the implied challenge to or complication with Ray's simple conversion. This provocative scene is not between Pastor Youngdahl and his congregation, but between Youngdahl and a black activist named Ernie Chambers. Youngdahl comes to Ernie's barber shop in friendship, apparently hoping to work with him on this visitation project, but Ernie's reaction to the pastor's efforts is a long way from cooperative. The eloquent verbal blows he calmly deals out to the dumbfounded preacher, almost without taking a breath, are worth quoting extensively here:
"The problem exists because white people think they're better than black people…so it's up to you to talk to your brothers and your sisters and persuade them that they have a responsibility…We're not going to suffer patiently anymore. No more turning the other cheek. No more blessing our enemies. No more praying for those who would spitefully use us. We're going to show you that we've learned the lessons that you've taught us, we've studied your history. And you did not over this country by singing 'We Shall Overcome.' You did not gain control of the world like you have it now by dealing fairly with the man and keeping your word. You're treaty-breakers, you're liars, you're thieves. You rape entire continents and races of people, then you wonder why these very people don't have any confidence or trust in you. Your religion means nothing. Your law is a farce and we see it every day; you demonstrated it in Alabama. And I can say you because you're part of the whole system. You profit from it. In fact, you make your living from it…as far as we're concerned, your Jesus is contaminated, just like everything else you've tried to force upon us is contaminated. So you can have him…I have a terrible feeling against preachers, because I think you guys are largely responsible for the problem in the first place. And you can accept it or not anyway you choose…Come back and see us again some time!"
The wounded preacher mutters, "I genuinely feel that I want to listen."
Ernie makes the prescient reply, "If you listen and try to do something, you'll get kicked out of your church. That's the way your people are."
One feels bad for the well-meaning pastor who walks out of the barber shop with his tail between his legs, but there is no denying Ernie's wisdom and no blaming him for his anger and suspicion. The hardest lesson for any ally of an oppressed group to learn is that no matter how much they want to help and no matter how much they learn and no matter how much they act on behalf of people of color, women, queer people, or whoever else, they can never get rid of that stain of privilege and a lifetime of unwitting participation in an unjust social system. Ernie gives Pastor Youngdahl a harsh lesson on this point and hints at the frustrating but unavoidable truth that he will never be able to do enough to redeem himself to the black community and that he will never be able to learn enough to truly understand them. Despite his vitriolic attack on the pastor, Ernie does help him in his mission, eventually meeting with church members to discuss race issues. Because, really, all one can do after understanding that one can never do enough and a problem will never be solved is try anyway. As Pastor Youngdahl ponders, "We've confessed our sins…but what do we do now? Do we sit around and despair?…Or do we try to live together and work out a better life?"
Docurama fails to provide a great transfer of the film, but does offer some decent extras. The print they used looks pretty dirty throughout. It is also quite grainy, but that quality likely emerged during the original shooting and processing of the film, not during the transfer to DVD. There is also some audible popping and crackling heard on the soundtrack, but not enough to really distract from or muddy the dialogue. The commentary track with director Bill Jersey and participants Bob Youngdahl, Ray Christiansen, and Ernie Chambers is interesting, but strange. The comments are thin in quantity with a lot of gaps, but it also sometimes seems as if it was cut together from separate interviews or screenings rather than recorded while all the participants were watching together. The participants don't really talk to each other at all and one of Ernie's lines is spliced in from another extra, the update on his life. Several of the other extras are written features that give background information on the film and director. In Jersey's statement, we learn that A Time for Burning was actually partly financed by the Lutheran Church and that they graciously supported the film even after they realized how controversial it would be and that it might reflect badly on them. The on-disc catalogue of Docurama's DVD offerings complete with eight trailers was actually much appreciated. Documentaries don't often get the same level of press attention and word of mouth as fiction films, so having the descriptions and trailers of other similar films right on the disc was a useful way to get recommendations.
Though the most obvious conflict in A Time for Burning is between the tolerant Christians and the intolerant ones, the more haunting theme that really resonated for me and stuck with me afterwards was the difficult issue of how to be an ally. That issue is every bit as relevant today as it was when the naive Pastor Youngdahl strolled eagerly into Ernie's barber shop.
Judge Jennifer Malkowski declares white America guilty of being "treaty-breakers, liars, and thieves." She rules in favor of Bill Jersey and his sound documentary, A Time for Burning. And she's not going to get into that part about "your Jesus [being] contaminated."
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