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Film / A Time for Burning

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Chambers and Youngdahl

A Time for Burning is a 1966 documentary film directed by William C. Jersey.

It is a story of an idealistic young minister, Rev. William Youngdahl, who arrives to be the new pastor of Augustana Lutheran Church in Omaha, Nebraska. Augustana Lutheran is as lily-white as most of Nebraska, but it also happens to be near north Omaha, the one place in Nebraska that has black people. Augustana Lutheran in fact is barely a mile and a half away from Hope Lutheran Church, an all-black Lutheran congregation. Rev. Youngdahl hits on an idea: to promote good relations and foster understanding between two communities that rarely interact by having ten Augustana Lutheran households volunteer to visit black Lutherans in north Omaha in their homes, and vice versa.

This perfectly mild and harmless idea sets off a firestorm of controversy. It soon becomes apparent that the good folks of Augustana Lutheran, despite their protestations of Christian faith, don't want to be spending any time with black people. The black Lutherans of north Omaha, for their part, are scornful of white people who profess to be Christians but don't follow God's teachings. Most outspoken is Ernie Chambers, a barber from north Omaha who is not afraid to call out white supremacy in uncompromising terms.


Four years after this movie was filmed Ernie Chambers ran for the Nebraska state legislature. He served there for 38 years, becoming the longest-serving legislator in Nebraska history, remaining a fire-breathing radical the whole time. In 2012 he won back his old seat.

Augustana Lutheran is still a house of worship.


  • The Barber: Ernie Chambers, who delivers some home truth to white supremacy to Youngdahl while cutting hair. He holds Youngdahl in just as much contempt as Youngdahl's racist parishioners, shouting "don't look back in anger!" as Youngdahl leaves the barber shop.
  • Churchgoing Villain: The quiet, polite parishioners of Augustana Lutheran, who quite obviously hate and fear black people.
  • Conversation Cut: An anxious but hopeful Rev. Youngdahl gets all the church leaders at Augusta Lutheran on board, and then says cautiously, "Tomorow night at the council meeting we'll see what reaction we're going to get." That's immediately followed by a cut to the next night and a hostile member of the council, saying "Why be so revolutionary and upheaval?"
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  • Downer Ending: The parishioners of Augusta Lutheran decisively reject the notion of socializing with black people. Instead, they force Rev. Youngdahl to resign his position.
  • Foreshadowing: Chambers is highly skeptical of Youngdahl's initiative, saying "If you listen" (to the black community) "and try to do something, you'll get kicked out of your church." This is exactly what happens.
  • Hollywood Tone-Deaf: The amazingly atrocious singing of the Augusta Lutheran choir.
  • In Medias Res: Wastes no time setting the scene (the film is only 56 minutes long) but goes right to it with a scene featuring the black parishioners of Hope Lutheran commiserating about how racist white people are.
  • Manipulative Editing: The makers of the documentary, who knew what they had with Ernie Chambers, brought Youngdahl into his barber shop for the express purpose of staging a confrontation. Then they cut Youngdahl's responses out of the movie.
  • Narrator: The film is done in cinema verite, fly-on-the-wall style, so it lacks most typical documentary tropes. It does occasionally use voiceover from Youngdahl, like in one segment where he talks about how some black teenagers visited Augustana and how that apparently freaked white parishioners out.
  • Punch-Clock Villain: The main message of the film is that racism is not the exclusive property of mouthbreathing Southern hillbillies who wear white hoods and blow up churches. The polite, respectable parishioners of Augusta Lutheran are deeply, deeply bigoted and racist, although they don't want to admit it. One parishioner says it's not that he doesn't like black people, it's just that having them in the neighborhood brings down property values. Another relates a second-hand story from some lady he knows who says that she wants black people to have everything she has, but she doesn't want to spend any time with them.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Ernie Chambers lets a startled Youngdahl have it with both barrels.
    Chambers: You did not take over this country by singing We Shall Overcome. 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.”
  • Title Drop: Sort of, as one of the parishioners calls integration the "burning question" of the day.

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