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Docurama presents
A Time For Burning (1966)

"If we do not start now as a church, the world is going to pass us by on the biggest issue of our lifetime."
- A congregant at Augusta Lutheran Church in Omaha, Nebraska, on integration

Review By: Jon Danziger   
Published: March 23, 2006

Director: Bill Jersey, Barbara Connell

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 00h:55m:57s
Release Date: December 26, 2005
UPC: 767685975237
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

Governments can pass laws, but they cannot move the hearts and minds of citizens. The true success of the civil rights movement came not from the ratification of a particular piece of legislation, or the integration of a school or a transit system or a neighborhood; rather, it happened in the smallest increments, one person, one block, one community at a time. This extraordinary documentary is about the repercussions of the civil rights movement on the congregants of a church in Omaha, Nebraska, in the 1960s—it's despairing to see how even the most modest bits of integration were regarded with a suspicion bordering on the paranoiac, and to see how, after 40 years, the public dialogue on issues of race hasn't changed much. But a few noble souls, brave people with good hearts, offer rays of hope, even if, then as now, they face hills far steeper than they should be.

The central figure in this documentary is Bill Youngdahl, relatively new to the pulpit at Omaha's Augusta Lutheran Church—it's a congregation about to celebrate its centennial, and every single member of the church is white. Youngdahl knows that the fiercely guarded walls of segregation constructed in the minds of his congregants are just plain wrong, and he's looking to change that, incrementally—his idea is that ten families in his church have dinner in their homes with ten families from another Lutheran church just a few blocks away, all of whose members are black. What's so upsetting, watching Youngdahl try to push things along, is that his congregants don't have bedsheets over their heads, they don't burn crosses, they don't fulminate with Bull Connor-like hatefulness; rather, they appear like perfectly decent people, but always with a reason to say no, to delay, to push off, to form a committee, to do anything to avoid even the most basic interactions with their fellow citizens whose skin happens to be of a darker hue. The Augustana youth group, as part of a comparative religion project, pay a visit to a local black congregation; when the black teenagers reciprocate and visit Youngdahl's church, it's nearly cause for a riot.

Youngdahl gets it from all sides, too—giving him a couple of earsful is Ernie Chambers, a local barber who's black, and rightly denounces centuries of his forebears and of his own generation being mistreated at the hands of white people. Youngdahl engineers a few face-to-face encounters between whites and blacks in Omaha, and while it's heartening to see a few members of Youngdahl's flock come around, it's embarrassing and shameful that there are so few of them, and that it takes such effort, for the white people in Omaha to acknowledge that the black people in Omaha are their equals, and haven't been treated that way.

All the euphemisms of the time are on display, ranging from separate but equal to the old canard from the whites that no, we're not racist, but if a black family moves into your neighborhood, it's going to drive down property values. Youngdahl has a great ally in the mayor of Omaha; they all watch TV every night, and see both black and white soldiers fighting for their country in Vietnam, knowing that if these young men are putting their lives on the line for their country, they should be able to see a movie or buy a Coke in whatever establishment they choose. There's no fairy tale ending here, but rather a despairing look at how deeply seated racism is in America, and how profoundly it's woven into the fabric of daily life.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The source material is seriously compromised—it's full of rips, scratches, and dirt, none of which seem to have gotten any TLC for the purposes of this transfer.

Image Transfer Grade: C


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes

Audio Transfer Review: Some static, but it sounds a whole lot better than it looks.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
8 Other Trailer(s) featuring Bob Dylan: Dont Look Back , Brother's Keeper, Go Tigers!, Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst, Lost in La Mancha, Paradise Lost, The Weather Underground, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill
1 Documentaries
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Bill Jersey, Bill Youngdahl, Ray Christiansen, Ernie Chambers
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. filmmaker's statement
  2. Docurama catalog
  3. information on Lutheran Film Associates
Extras Review: The most edifying extra may be an interview (21m:01s) with Ernie Chambers, the most outspoken member of Omaha's black community in the film—now he's a state legislator, and a fierce advocate for the rights of minorities. He's on the commentary track, too, joined by director Bill Jersey, Rev. Bill Youngdahl (misidentified in the menu as Bob Youngdahl), and Augustana congregant Ray Christiansen. Jersey is especially interesting on the origins of the film, and the conscious decision not to go to the South, or someplace particularly urban, to get a better sense of the impact of the civil rights movement across the country. He's also got kind words for Lutheran Film Associates, who gave the filmmakers free rein, regardless of the light in which it showed the church.

Extras Grade: B-


Final Comments

An unflinching piece of work from the first great era of documentary filmmaking, and an unsparing look at the state of race relations in America, one that's just about as relevant today as it was four decades ago, sadly for all of us.


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