Movie journalism is drowning in interviews, which crowd out criticism by letting artists explain and justify their work in ways that the work itself may not. Occasionally, though, an interview is so illuminating that it becomes not a secondary text but another primary one, a creation worthy to stand alongside the work that it discusses. So it is with a pair of interviews that the documentarian William Jersey gave about his 1966 film “A Time for Burning,” which follows the efforts of a Lutheran minister to break the racial barrier. (One took place in 2018, the other this month, and both are available on the Web site The King’s Necktie. The film itself is streaming on YouTube.)
Jersey, now in his nineties, is the film’s producer and cinematographer; he and Barbara Connell conceived, directed, and edited it (she also recorded the sound); they and an assistant cameraman and assistant editor, Justus Taylor, comprised the entire crew. This is significant, because the movie is one of intimacy, confession, risky self-exposure, and forthright confrontation. I was surprised, as I watched, by the degree of candor that its subjects allowed themselves, but Jersey’s interviews make clear how such candor was achieved. In the process, he also illuminates the very nature of documentary practice, and how purpose and principle are embodied in technique.
The film, shot in 1965, is centered on William Youngdahl, the minister of Augustana Lutheran Church, in Omaha, Nebraska, which has an all-white congregation. Youngdahl seeks to facilitate contact between his congregation and local Black churchgoers. He invites teen-agers from the nearby, all-black Calvin Memorial Presbyterian Church to join one of his services. Then, he intends to carry the project further by asking for married couples from his own congregation to volunteer to have dinner at the homes of couples from the Presbyterian church. His idea was simple: he knew that many, perhaps most of his congregants had literally never spoken at any length to a Black person, and he believed that encouraging them to do so would be a crucial first step in confront the evils of racism and white supremacy, which he considered un-Christian.
As the film quickly reveals, though, Youngdahl finds that many members of his own church want nothing to do with those from the other. At the meeting of a small committee of church members, he faces opposition—not on principle but on practicalities—to the idea of the couples’ dinners. One man thinks that the issue of racism is important to address but that the visits will “split the church”; he and the others vote for the measure nonetheless. The next night, at a larger gathering of the entire board, Youngdahl again faces opposition—one member asserts that opposition from the congregation is rooted in the fear that the church itself might become integrated, and another deems the planned dinner exchanges “revolutionary.” Youngdahl, for his part, considers the measure to be minimal, compared with the drastic changes that he deemed necessary. From the pulpit, he preaches against the sins of white supremacy; he expresses shock that professing Christians use the N-word, challenges his parishioners to consider what they teach their children about race, and asserts with repressed fury the failure of white churches to act firmly on behalf of racial justice and equality. For Youngdahl, the scourge of racism isn’t only legal and social; it’s a spiritual matter involving the inner life.
Jersey shares Youngdahl’s intense concern for the moral core of white Christians. As he details in the interviews, he grew up in Queens and was raised in a fundamentalist Christian family, and, though he left that church as an adult, he remains a Christian. He tells the interviewer, “Jesus actually said a lot of good things. But the Christians I know for the most part don’t seem to remember any of them.” As for the film, he said, “When I made ‘A Time for Burning’ I was still a good Christian church member and that’s how I got the job from the Lutherans.” He explained that the movie was produced by the film division of the Evangelical Lutheran Church—that he was specifically hired by the Lutheran group “to do a film for the Lutherans about racial tension in the church,” and that the Lutheran official who commissioned it, Robert Lee, persuaded the Augustana congregants that it would be good for the church “to demonstrate how willing they were to show their own flaws. This is what you have to do when you go before Jesus; you have to present yourself in your course.” The white congregants spoke freely in his presence, because, as he put it, “they believed—and it was true—that I wasn’t trying to hang them.”
“A Time for Burning” also shows Youngdahl meeting with members of Omaha’s Black community. A group of churchgoing teens express their bewilderment that professing Christians can both harbor and defend racist attitudes. (One young man says that “a church isn’t a showplace for saints, it’s a hospital for sinners”—i.e., a place where racism should be confronted.) At a Black barbershop, a barber cutting a child’s hair speaks bluntly to Youngdahl of America’s history of racism and the country’s betrayal of its own principles. He says that Youngdahl himself, as a beneficiary of the racist power structure, bears personal responsibility for it, and that the responsibility for doing something about it falls squarely on him—and he predicts that Youngdahl will be fired from his ministry for the mere fact of wanting to listen to Black people. (Spoiler alert: he’s proved right.)
If “A Time for Burning” were conceived as a scripted drama, it would be anchored by what the great Hollywood director Douglas Sirk would call the immovable characters, who pursue their goals single-mindedly despite any obstacles (mainly Youngdahl and the barber). But it would focus on an Augustana congregant named Ray, who turns out to be Youngdahl’s most fervent, uncompromising, and spiritually tormented ally. At the beginning of the campaign, Ray—though supporting it in principle—considers it impracticable, but in the course of many committee and community meetings he has something like a conversion experience. (He even spotlights the very moment of his change of heart—a frank discussion with members of Calvin Memorial and other Black citizens.) From that point on, Ray’s very voice changes, becoming tautly energized with righteous, self-challenging passion. He defends Youngdahl’s plan in the strongest terms, invoking the failures of the Lutheran church to take a stand against the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany. When a fellow-congregant tells him that the church is at risk of losing much of its congregation on what should be the festive occasion of its impending centenary, Ray’s answer is that the church has had a hundred years to confront racism and has, shockingly, done nothing.
Jersey films these debates with a dialectical vigor, putting every utterance into high moral relief, placing every moment in the grave light of history. His camera seems to be a spiritual X-ray, revealing the hypocrisy of ostensibly devout Christians who treat their church like a sort of exclusionary country club. When filming Black participants, Jersey—who is white—is a self-aware outsider, no less than Youngdahl is; both are there to listen and to bridge a gap that’s rooted in their own awareness of their failings. At one point, Youngdahl asserts that his program stands to benefit not the Black congregants but the white ones—that it’s the Black participants in the couples’ dinners who would be rendering a service—and Jersey seems to film with the same sense of gratitude.