And so the invitation was proffered to Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha:
Would he travel to the Academy Theater in
midtown Manhattan for an Oct. 20 presentation of “A Time for Burning?”
Would he then join the film’s
director Bill Jersey for a post-screening conversation?Reviewers called the documentary the most honest,
accurate and effective expose of the civil rights impasse ever filmed.
It showed real people in crisis.
Black and white.
Cinéma vérité — cinema of truth.
Directors Bill Jersey and Barbara Connell traveled to
Omaha in 1965 to film the real life drama of segregation of the church in America.
The film crew followed a Lutheran
minister, William Youngdahl, as he tried to inspire his congregation to confront racism.
As Youngdahl pursued his idea
to have members from his white church meet with members from black churches in each other’s homes, he ran into a brutally
honest young barber, Ernie Chambers. So, too, did one of the church leaders, Ray Christensen, who was forced to confront his
own passive prejudice.
Youngdahl’s quest to bring the races together on this small scale was the mildest project
that he could envision.
When he came to north Omaha’s Spencer Street Barber Shop in the first scene, Chambers
said Youngdahl thought his idea could succeed.
“I said, ‘Not in Omaha.’ As mild as it is, you try
to do this and they’ll kick you out of your church,” Chambers said. Chambers drew national
even before he took up residence on the statewide stage of the Nebraska Legislature, where he eventually
would make history as the most outspoken and longest-serving senator.
The 58-minute documentary, which cost $80,000
to make, premiered nationwide on public television in September 1966. The response was said to be extraordinary. Former CBS
News president Fred Friendly said it was one of the best documentaries he had ever seen.
Director Jersey wrote to Chambers
in June 1966, after filming was complete, telling him his contribution to the film could not be overestimated.
a world of evasions and half-truths, your voice has conviction and clarity. ... They may hate you and what you represent,
but they cannot ignore you.”
Four decades later, not much has changed.
“Just got older and grayer
and I hope wiser … and I’m meaner,” Chambers said last week.
Only the context of racism has changed,
Maybe today, blacks and whites could visit in each other’s homes or churches, and it wouldn’t
“But when it comes to other issues of substance, the attitude underlying what happened at that
time is still here today,” he said.
With a need for affirmative action programs for black people, women, older
people and others, “that hard-hearted, discriminatory attitude is there,” he said.
In the film, Chambers
told the Lutheran minister that white people, including those in churches, pulled the strings that closed schools, drew the
boundaries that kept black people restricted in ghettos and wrote the covenants that kept them out of houses.
across the country, he said, black children are two or more grades behind their white peers in public schools. Many of their
schools are ramshackle and inferior. Their teachers are frequently the least qualified. The neighborhoods they live in are
redlined by real estate agencies and insurance companies.
Nobody can convince him, he said, that racism is any less
virulent now than it was in 1966.
In fact, he said, it’s worse, “because there has been a thin veneer of
sophistication over it so that instead of the lawbooks carrying Jim Crow laws, they now have James Crow Esq. practices and
traditions that achieve an even more devastating result.”
Wherever white people and black people come into contact,
he said, there is going to be friction and discrimination.
“I have no illusions or delusions about my status
in this society as a black man.” Ed Carter, documentary curator for the academy
had the job of rehabilitating the 41-year-old film, making the picture pristine and the sound crystal clear.
called Harrison, the New York program director.
It would be great, he said, if Harrison could give this film that deals
with the timely topic of race and religion an audience.
“I thought it was fantastic,” Harrison said.
exciting was that the Lutheran Church held back nothing in giving the cinematographer unprecedented access to the church’s
“All that made for a really important film to be preserved,” he said.
It has presented
itself as an interesting parallel in 2008, Harrison said, with Barack Obama the first black nominee for president by a major
party, and the questions of race and religion.
The documentary will be presented as part of the “Monday
Nights with Oscar” series, that follows the academy’s mission to educate the public on its motion picture heritage.
Time for Burning” fits well into the series, Harrison said. And it is important to have Chambers in New York for the
“I saw the documentary and I said, ‘Oh this man is amazing,’” he said. “I
think this will be one of those really special academy nights.”
Besides the screening and discussion at the 230-seat
Academy Theater, the documentary will be broadcast simultaneously on the cable Documentary Channel, and then repeated immediately
Time Warner Cable in Lincoln does not carry the Documentary Channel.
On the panel with Chambers and
Jersey will be Elvis Mitchell, former New York Times movie critic who has also worked for National Public Radio and the Turner
Classic Movies channel. In 1967, Chambers was invited to speak in Minneapolis
a group of suburban ministers.
His words shocked them.
“What makes you think you can sit around, pontificate
and feel holier than thou,” he asked them, according to a Minneapolis Tribune report.
Ministers talk of brotherly
love, but they don’t practice what they preach, he said.
Four decades later, he says, his detractors —
who he believes are plentiful in Lincoln — will see that his work does not easily die.
“Ah me, life is
hard and so unfair to those who find me to be unbearably distasteful,” he said in a letter to the Journal Star. “I
simply refuse to ‘shut up’ and ‘go away.’”Reach JoAnne Young at 473-7228 or email@example.com.
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