In 1966, the legendary documentary filmmaker Bill Jersey, one of the pioneers of cinema verité, made a film about an all-white Lutheran church in Omaha, Nebraska, whose idealistic pastor was trying to arrange a visitation between his parishioners and those of a local all-black Lutheran church. Yet even that mild idea ignited a firestorm within his congregation. The visit never took place and the pastor was fired.
Jersey’s hour-long documentary A Time for Burning, shot on 16mm black & white film in the fly-on-the-wall style that he shared with other innovators like Fred Wiseman, the Maysles, the NFB, and others, was nominated for an Academy Award. It is a stunning chronicle of that affair and a searing portrait of deeply ingrained racism in America.
The tragic thing is, the events it documents are as topical today as they were 54 years ago.
Bill Jersey was the right man to make that film. Raised in a fundamentalist Christian family in Queens, he had been taught that every word of the Bible was the literal truth. After serving in the Navy in World War II and studying painting at Wheaton College and film at USC, he slowly left the church—dramatically so—becoming a champion of progressive and social justice issues in the scores of documentary films he made over the next five decades while based in Berkeley, CA. I was lucky enough to work for Bill in one of my first jobs out of film school, and have had the honor to call him my friend and mentor for more than twenty years. (Aged 93, he is now based in Lambertville, NJ.)
In January 2018 I spoke with him in these pages for a two-part interview about why evangelicals support Trump. (“Jesus Wept: Bill Jersey on the End of Evangelicalism [Part 1]” and “Truth or Consequences: Bill Jersey on the End of Evangelicalism [Part 2].”) This week I spoke with him again about the ongoing, painful relevance of his 1966 masterpiece.
HERE I STAND
TKN: I watched A Time for Burning again last night and it was fascinating. I’ve seen it several times over the past twenty years, but to watch it in this moment was amazing—and sad, because it could not be more timely.
How did the film come to be?
BJ: There was a guy named Robert Lee—not Robert E. Lee—who worked for Lutheran Film Associates, which at the time was part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. He’d seen a film I made for NBC in the early ‘60s called Manhattan Battleground, about a social worker on 111th Street. And he knew I had been raised in a fundamentalist Christian family even though I’d left the church, and he decided that he wanted me to do a film for the Lutherans about racial tension in the church. I said I wouldn’t do a film about the church’s answer to racial tension, but I would do it if I could find a minister who was dealing with it in a situation that had conflict, because otherwise we don’t have a film.
While we were discussing it, a woman at LFA said to me, “Well, who’s going to write the script?” And I said I don’t write scripts. As you know, my way of doing films is to select a person and a situation and pray to God that something will happen. And she said, “Well, how are we going to know what we’re going to get?” And I said, “You don’t.” (laughs) She said, that’s asking a lot of us. And I said, yup, but that’s asking a lot of me too, because I’m taking your money and I better deliver a film that works for you or I’m in real trouble. So it’s potentially lose-lose. But if it works it’s win-win.
And they agreed.
TKN: You gotta hand it to the Lutherans.
BJ: Yeah, and not only were they Lutherans, but they were the conservative Lutherans: the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America.
TKN: I have some Lutheran background myself. Obviously, the whole church was founded on protest and defiance of authority.
BJ: Bob Lee is the one who convinced them that it would be good for them 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.
So we began filming. It was just three of us: me, and Barbara Connell, my co-producer and co-filmmaker, and an assistant cameraman, because we had magazines that had to be loaded! And we found this young Lutheran pastor in Omaha, Nebraska named Bill Youngdahl who was the son of Judge Luther Youngdahl from Minnesota, who was trying to arrange visits between the all-white members of his Augustana Lutheran Church and the all-black members of Hope Lutheran Church—aptly named.
I said to him, “Bill, do you realize that if we do this film, you might end up looking like this…..” And I put my hands out like I was being crucified. And he laughed. But that’s what happened.
TKN: Ernie Chambers’ speech at the beginning of the film is incredible. Every single thing he says could have been said yesterday, or today. It’s a remarkable speech.
(NB: In a key scene right at the beginning of the film, a Black barber named Ernie Chambers calmly cuts a customer’s hair in an Omaha barbershop while eloquently haranguing Rev. Youngdahl, who listens patiently. Let me quote It here:)
ERNIE: The problem exists because white people think they’re better than Black people and want us to allow ourselves to be oppressed.
I can’t solve the problem. You guys pull the strings and close schools. You guys drop the bombs that keep our kids restricted to the ghetto. You guys write up the restrictive covenants that keep us out of housing. So it’s up to you to talk to your brothers and your sisters and persuade them that they have a responsibility. We’ve assumed ours for over 400 years and we’re tired of this kind of stuff. We’re not going to suffer patiently anymore. No more turning the other cheek, no more blessing our enemies, no more praying to those that spitefully use us.
We’re going to show you that we’ve learned the lessons you’ve taught us. We studied your history and you did not take 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 a 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 and trust in you. Your religion means nothing. Your law is a farce and we see it everyday….
As far as we’re concerned, your Jesus is contaminated just like everything else you tried to force upon us. So you can have Him. Here’s what I say: I wish you would follow Jesus like we followed Him, ‘cause if you did that, then we’d be in charge tomorrow.
BJ: What the audience doesn’t know is that Ernie, this barber, has a law degree. He went on to become the longest serving member of the Nebraska State Legislature, for something like 35 years. That was something we kept out of the film for dramatic effect. (laughs)
He was right, of course. Because when Bill Youngdahl went back and proposed this visitation to the beloved Christians in his congregation, they did not like what he was asking them to do. And all he was asking was for them to visit with these black Lutherans in their homes. They weren’t even going to go near the church! But just that was too much for them. So he quit.
TKN: But he was fired, really. Right? He didn’t quit.
BJ: Right. He was asked to leave by the Bishop. They don’t “fire” in the church. They just ask you to leave.
TKN: Like Lucifer was “asked to leave” heaven.
BJ: Yes. But his wife was so tired of the tension in the church that she said, please, let’s just go. The pastor’s wife, not Lucifer’s. (laughs)
I SEEN ALL GOOD PEOPLE TURN THEIR HEADS
TKN: It’s incredible, like you say, to watch that film now—it’s 54 years old, almost as old as me—and the world hasn’t changed at all. Not at its core anyway.
BJ: No, it hasn’t changed. There’s nothing in that film that would not happen now.
TKN: It’s almost more timely now than, say, five years ago, because five years ago I would have said to you, “Well, the difference is now that same racism is subterranean and people are ashamed of it.” But it poked its head up again, since 2016. It’s appalling that bigots have become so emboldened again, but at least now there’s no pretending it’s not there.
BJ: It’s sad but it’s true, but that cop who knelt on George Floyd’s neck and murdered him, to some people represents “law and order.”
TKN: When you watch A Time for Burning in light of what happened in the wake of that murder, what are your thoughts?
BJ: I thought, boy, we really need ministers like Bill Youngdahl, instead of ministers like Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham. Billy Graham said in 1988 that fundamentalist Christians have to be careful not to be caught up in the far right. That of course is the problem, because Franklin Graham and all those Christians that are supporting Donald Trump.
TKN: That’s why the stunt that Trump pulled at St. John’s Episcopal Church was so appalling. I’m going to go out there, tear gas these people, hold up this Bible like it’s a clove of garlic warding off a vampire, to appeal to these same folks that you’re talking about.
BJ: That’s right. And hold it upside down!
TKN: You couldn’t have made up anything more egregious! And I think that’s why there was such a backlash, because everybody could see just how shameless that was, even by Donald Trump’s standards. Except for the really Kool-Aid drunks.
BJ: But there’s a lot of Kool-Aid drunks. That’s the thing with the church, and why I ultimately totally disassociated with Christianity, is that they believe that they cannot allow another point of view to even enter their mind. It isn’t a matter of “We just disagree with that.” It’s “We don’t even hear that.” They literally have the capacity to deny the existence of something that is uncomfortable or frightening. Now, denying the existence of danger can sometimes get you through danger. I realize that. But it also can get you in worse trouble, and that’s what’s happening to our country.
That’s why A Time for Burning, to me, should be seen because it calls out the “good white people” for refusing to see what they are doing that is harmful. These were not evil people. These were good people trying to preserve their goodness. And that’s the message that needs to be heard. “Good white people” are refusing to see the harm that they are doing.
TKN: Well, that’s everything, right? That’s like the Amy Coopers of the world, allegedly good people, people who don’t think of themselves as bad, who think only “bad” people are racist, who can’t recognize in themselves, the sickness that we all have.
BJ: My favorite quote is the lady who says of the black Lutherans: “I want God to bless them just as much as He blesses me. I just can’t be in the same room with them.” (laughs) It’s terrible!
TKN: Exactly. It’s one thing to have a film about neo-Nazis or Klansmen in Charlottesville. Nobody, except in their own circle, disputes their vileness. But, as you say, the bigger problem is the people—like all of us—who don’t see it in ourselves, who go around thinking we’re on the side of the angels, but don’t see our own complicity.
BJ: It’s just what you tell children when they’re going to walk across the street in front of a car: stop, look, and listen. See what’s being done, and listen to the pain, listen to the anger, and hear what’s being said, and do it without reacting negatively. Even though it’s coming out in a way that you don’t like, and especially if you don’t like it ‘cause aimed at you or your group of people, but that’s what we’ve got to learn to do.
That’s why that sequence of Bill Youngdahl listening to Ernie Chambers is so important. That’s why Bill achieved what he did in that church, to the degree he achieved it, because he really did listen. And he not only listened, he communicated his concern.
TRUTH AND FICTION
BJ: When Bill was fired, that was a bummer for me, because he tells me, “Bill, I’m leaving. I announced it to my church last night.” I was like, “Thanks a fricking lot, bubby—that’s what I need to be there for, to film it while you were announcing that!” So since I didn’t have the key sequence in my movie, what you see is a row of black hats as he talks about the men who wore those black hats, the ones who asked him to leave.
TKN: That was an elegant solution that you came up with.
BJ: Well, you know, if you’re doing documentary and you don’t want to be dishonest, you find a way of telling the truth which was not provided to you the way you wanted it. What is it that I can substitute for what I wish I would have gotten that is authentic?
TKN: But sometimes that can be good. You were forced into a creative solution that might have been more interesting than just the scene. It’s Von Trier’s The Five Obstructions.
BJ: To me, that is what documentary filmmaking is at its best. You are forced into creative solutions. I’m not willing to alter reality…..but I’m willing to introduce myself into reality.
TKN: These days in a situation like that they would just ask Bill to reenact it….and not tell the audience it was a reenactment, either. Documentary ethics don’t exist anymore.
BJ: No, I don’t do reenactments. Never, ever, ever, ever. Never have, never will. I don’t believe in manipulation, but I believe in intervention. I said to Bill Youngdahl, “You gotta go meet Ernie Chambers.” Bill didn’t know him, but was willing to meet him. So is that manipulating people? Yes, but only to the degree to which I think is right for them, and they think is right for them.
TKN: (laughs) In today’s reality TV climate that doesn’t even begin to count as manipulation!
BJ: I wanted the world to know what it was like to struggle with the organization that ostensibly exists for the purpose by which you are trying to live your life. Bill Youngdahl wanted to live his life like Jesus. And so did the church, theoretically. So they ought to be on the same team, right? Wrong.
TKN: And how did the church receive the finished film?
BJ: Well, I told them that I was willing to give up the film. I told them, this isn’t the film you wanted, it isn’t the film you were paying for, so you don’t have to take it. Because the film had been entirely funded by the church. And this guy at the other end of the table, one of the church council members, says, very adamantly: “This film is going out, and if anyone wants to stop it, it will be over my dead body.” And he’d had a heart attack two weeks before!
TKN: That’s impressive.
BJ: The only guy it made unhappy was the Bishop who had fired Bill Youngdahl. It made him really unhappy.
TKN: But he made his bed. You don’t misportray it. The Bishop fired him, and you show that.
BJ: Yes. Before I started shooting I said to the Bishop, “You know I’m going to edit. And when a filmmaker edits, they change how things appear. So when I finish, I’m going to show it to you and if you think it misrepresents what happened, I’ll change it.” And I did, I showed it to him, and sure enough he didn’t like it. So I said, “But did I misrepresent anything?” And he said, “No, you didn’t misrepresent.”
TKN: And then there are the white people in the movie that are not quite as benighted, who are struggling with it. You can see it. And then they come around. They’re like, “We have to do this. If we’re really followers of Jesus, we have to do this.” And it is so moving.
BJ: The funny thing is, the scene that I messed with the most in terms of altering reality was the barbershop sequence with Ernie and Bill. Bill was wonderful. He was really caring and thoughtful and bright and very intelligent. And everything Ernie said, Bill would either say “Yes, I understand, and that’s right, and it should be that way.” He always had a positive response, he always was affirmative toward what Ernie was saying, but he said, “But Ernie, that doesn’t alter my goal, to try and do something in this situation, and I want your help.”
I took it all out. In the film I just keep Bill silent and let Ernie do all the talking, because that got the capital “t” Truth across better than the literal truth. I took the communication of concern away from Bill in that sequence. The story wouldn’t allow me to soften Ernie’s attack.
Bill would have been within his rights to complain, but he didn’t. He understood why I did that and how it served the film.
TKN: Wow. I don’t know if I would have that kind of humility, or integrity.
BJ: It’s rare. As a matter of fact, as far as I know, the only person who was unhappy with my editing was Ernie Chambers, who thought I was too nice to the mayor. (laughs) He said, “You made that guy look good!” I said, no, I didn’t make that guy look good. He made himself look what he look liked. It was totally authentic.
TKN: Other than that, did you get any pushback from the African-American community?
BJ: No, no, no, no. None. On the contrary. I am never there to expose anybody except that part of them that is authentic to them. If you’re a racist, yes, I will try to show the world your racism. But that’s easy with racists, because they are authentically racist.
STEAL THIS FLAG
BJ: One of the films I did two years after A Time for Burning was called America Against Itself, which we made in 1968. I was in Chicago during the Democratic Convention. Policemen were swinging their batons at me, but fortunately for me they knew that the guy they had to get was the guy with the light, because if I didn’t have my light, I couldn’t film. (laughs)
TKN: Who are you working for then?
BJ: Myself. Actually that’s not true. I was working for myself when I was on the street, but I was there to do a film for the US Information Agency about a delegate from Vermont who had to decide who to vote for. We’d been following him for a while, and then he finally ended up in Chicago. So I sent another cameraman to stay with him in the convention while I went and filmed the riots in the street.
TKN: And who did that guy vote for?
BJ: You know, I don’t know. I don’t really remember the film. (laughs) Very noble film about the democratic process, though.
TKN: They had some timing, didn’t they, the USIA? I don’t know if it’s good timing or bad timing, but they had timing. And of course ‘68 is on everybody’s mind now, and Chicago is on everybody’s mind.
BJ: While I was there in Chicago Abbie Hoffman was there too, burning the flag. And I said, “Abbie, you’re an idiot. That is not your statement. It’s the statement you’re making cause it’s easy. Dumb statements are easy to make. A dumb statement is ‘The flag is evil.’ The flag is not evil. What you should’ve done is wrapped yourself in that flag and said to those cops in Chicago, ‘You are not going to destroy my country, and this flag represents my country, so don’t tear it away from me.’ Instead of burning it.”
TKN: What was his response?
BJ: (laughs) Oh, I dunno. He was a wiseass, He was very bright guy, though. You know he ended up committing suicide, right?
TKN: Yeah. When he was on the lam, he lived for a while in New Hope, PA where my family lived, and where my dad still lives. They didn’t hang out much, though, Abbie and the colonel. (laughs)
But you’re right about the flag. I mean, that’s the quote, usually misattributed to Huey Long, about when fascism comes to America….and Trump literally goes around hugging the flag and holding up a Bible, like he did at St. John’s. The least pious man ever! Like, have some subtlety, guy. Not his strong suit, of course.
There’s a piece in the Washington Post today by Marc Thiessen, the odious right wing commentator, saying that kneeling in protest during the national anthem the way Colin Kaepernick did “disrespects the country.” We don’t even need to dignify that opinion, but you and I are both veterans and Marc Thiessen ain’t, so I don’t need any lectures on patriotism from him. But that’s the reactionary mentality, and it’s still around.
BJ: Yes it is. And of course violence begets violence.
TKN: Yeah, I’m not sure I understand the logic of using police brutality to put down a protest about police brutality.
BJ: But see, that’s it. It’s in the Yippie film, Here’s Yippie, which is the story of the Youth International Party, starring Abbie. It’s a very funny film. And there’s a sequence where the cops are beating the shit out of somebody, and the guy just keeps saying, “Overreaction! Overreaction!” (laughs) That’s all they say. “Overreaction!” They don’t say, “Look how evil this is!” (laughs)
TKN: It’s like Monty Python and the Holy Grail. “Come and see the violence inherent in the system!”
TKN: Do you know what the politics of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America are today?
BJ: Funny enough, they were Republicans in 1966, though Republicans in ‘66 were very different than now. But now they are very progressive, pro-LGBTQ rights, pro-immigration, and from what I can tell, anti-Trump.
TKN: And what happened to Bill Youngdahl?
BJ: Bill Youngdahl went to California, of course! What else would somebody do who gets kicked out of his church, right? He went to California and took a church there. Then he went to a church in Oregon and then he died.
And Ernie was in the state legislature for 35 years until they finally said, we’ve got to change the laws so you cannot continue to be a legislator for that long. So they changed the laws and kicked him out. But I understand that he found a way of getting back in.
But you know, he wouldn’t listen, Ernie. I think in order to do what he wanted to do in the world, he couldn’t listen, not even to those who say, “I really do want to change. Help me change.” He won’t do that. He would say, let somebody else do that. My job is to make you uncomfortable. My job is to make you see your flaws.
TKN: That’s his function, right? Bill Youngdahl represents the work that needs to be done on the white side. Ernie represents the righteous wrath on the Black side, of the people who were wronged.
BJ: Yup. I didn’t want a one-dimensional Ernie Chambers representing a one dimensional world. I didn’t want my audience to say, “Oh, that’s the way black people are.” So in the barbershop you hear other Black people—customers and other barbers— arguing with Ernie.
TKN: Right, because Ernie’s position was not the mainstream position, even in his community, at the time. He’s more mainstream now, but that’s because the mainstream caught up with him, not the other way around.
So let’s go to Ernie Chambers one last time and give him the final word, because he predicted what would happen to Rev. Youngdahl:
ERNIE: I think the problem is so bad that we can have no understanding at all.
You talk about justice. It means one thing to you, and we talk about it and it means something else to us. And it will always be that way. And I’d like you to know, I have a terrible feeling against preachers because I think you guys are the ones who are largely responsible for the problem in the first place. And you can accept it or not any way you choose. And for you, this may be an excursion across the line, but if you listen and try to do something, you’ll get kicked out of your church. This is where your people are.
God bless you, brother.
Photo: Ernie Chambers and Rev. Bill Youngdahl in A Time for Burning (1966). Credit: Bill Jersey.
Bill Jersey – Biography
Bill Jersey has been producing groundbreaking documentaries for over 60 years. Since establishing his reputation in the 1960s as one of the pioneers of the cinema verité movement, he has produced films for all of the major networks including a long association with PBS stations such as WNET New York, KCET Los Angeles, KQED San Francisco, and WGBH Boston, among others. Jersey’s body of work includes the award-winning documentaries A Time for Burning and Super Chief: The Life and Legacy of Earl Warren, which were both nominated for Oscars; Children of Violence and Loyalty & Betrayal: The Story of the American Mob, which both won Emmys; The Glory and the Power, Faces of the Enemy, and Renaissance (a four-part series on the history of the Renaissance), all of which were nominated for Emmys; and the four-part series The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow, which won a Peabody. His most recent documentaries are Eames: The Architect & The Painter, which also won a Peabody, and American Reds (with Richard Wormser).
A graduate of Wheaton College (with a B.A. in Art) and the University of Southern California (with an M.A. in Cinema), Jersey has been the head of Quest Productions for over fifty years. In 2000 he was awarded the Gold Medal for his body of work from the National Arts Club in New York City. After many years in Berkeley, CA, he and his wife and partner Shirley Kessler are now based in Lambertville, NJ. Jersey is also an accomplished landscape painter whose works have been shown widely in galleries across the US. He is represented by the Lambertville Artists Gallery.