The Stuff of Legend
Charles Burnett's films are hard to find, but their themes reverberate loudly
By Jim Ridley
JUNE 7, 1999: The hero of Nightjohn, a film Charles Burnett directed for the Disney Channel in 1996, is a living piece of folklore--a man who changes the lives of people he's never met. The same could be said of Charles Burnett's movies. Take his first feature, the 1977 drama Killer of Sheep. It's one of only 250 movies preserved by the Library of Congress' National Film Registry--an honor accorded to the essentials of American cinema, like Citizen Kane and The Wizard of Oz. Yet it wasn't given wide distribution in the United States, and it has never been released on video. Its existence remains a virtual secret.
Even so, it's a secret, like Nightjohn's, that grows in power as it is shared. Shot in beautiful, unsparing black-and-white by director Burnett, Killer of Sheep cuts between the home life of a Watts family man, Stan (Henry Gale Sanders), and his job butchering sheep in a slaughterhouse. The job carries a heavy toll on his wife and two kids, and the weight of this economic dead-end is constant. At one point Burnett even draws a disturbing visual parallel between two boys doing handstands and the skinned sheep hanging upside down in Stan's slaughterhouse, as if both were destined for an equally bleak future. But Stan insists he's doing all right. "I'm not poor," he argues. "You can't donate stuff to the Salvation Army if you's poor."
Shot for less than $20,000 on a year's worth of weekends, Killer of Sheep has assumed the status of legend in American underground cinema. The Chicago Reader's Jonathan Rosenbaum, perhaps the country's best working film critic, included it on his alternate list of the 100 greatest American films of the century. It even received one of the Sundance Film Festival's earliest awards. More importantly, it introduced themes Burnett has cultivated throughout his career: the simultaneous strength and volatility of family life; the common threads of folklore and ritual; the socioeconomic pressures on black Americans to compromise, morally or emotionally.
It's appropriate, then, that Burnett should receive the inaugural "Freedom in Film" award from the First Amendment Center and the Nashville Independent Film Festival. The award recognizes "using freedom of expression to highlight social concerns [and] representing a unique and individual voice in the film industry."
Yet representing that voice has come at a cost Stan would appreciate. The three features Burnett has directed since Killer of Sheep have largely been met with acclaim, especially his best-known film, 1990's To Sleep With Anger. Yet Burnett's career has been constantly bedeviled by financial setbacks and interference. Ask the 55-year-old director if the indie-film movement has eased his path, and he just laughs.
"When I was coming up, there was a real difference in independent film," Burnett says from his home in Los Angeles. He's in the process of editing his first theatrical release in five years, The Annihilation of Fish, an offbeat romantic fantasy with James Earl Jones and Lynn Redgrave. "Those who were truly making independent films always knew they'd be making them on the side. I never thought I'd be doing this for a living."
Indeed. A student and teacher at the same UCLA film department that later produced vanguard African American directors Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust) and Haile Gerima (Sankofa), Burnett worked a variety of jobs, from librarian to talent agent, to finance his short films and his first feature. After Killer of Sheep, Burnett made 1984's My Brother's Wedding, the story of a Watts kid unsure whether he should attend his older brother's wedding into a well-off family or the funeral of a delinquent friend.
Filming the movie was no easier. The star, Everett Silas, demanded more money, then left at one point to become a preacher. "He stepped off the airplane in a cape, carrying a Bible," Burnett recalls, "the most stagy thing I've ever seen." Then the German backers forced the director to submit a hastily edited cut of the film. It's the only version that exists today, and it's just as hard to find as Killer of Sheep.
With Danny Glover's newfound Lethal Weapon clout, however, Burnett was able to make a masterpiece. A sly, rich, and deeply humane comedy of manners, To Sleep With Anger stars Glover in the performance of his career as Harry Mention, a demon trickster summoned out of a middle-class African American family's past. Glover's Harry is a chicken-fried scoundrel, an agent of discord who zeroes in on his hosts' weaknesses. He represents the troubled, unruly Southern heritage the family has kept dormant, and his Staggerlee charm and fruit-jar likker are bad magic indeed. Only the mother's selfless intervention, a bit of spilled blood, and the good mojo of a vigilant broom protect the household from its own awakening id.
The film is spiced with autobiographical details, yet the film is most fascinating for its take on folklore and the uneasy role of the South in the African American tradition. A native of Vicksburg, Miss., Burnett moved to L.A. at an early age, and he says he was surrounded by a whole community of transplanted Southerners. "[The South] was something people always referred to when I was a kid," he remembers. "It became this mythological land, like Oz. It was both good and bad--no one thing, but a lot of things. It was almost like a creative force."
With that heritage, he says, came a stream of anecdotes, tall tales, and life lessons. "All the storytelling originates from there, the oral history and mysterious characters," he notes. "When I was a kid, it seemed like everyone knew you. They were always telling stories, mysteries of life." Sadly, he says that the studio, Samuel Goldwyn, demanded that he remove some of the more exotic folklore from To Sleep With Anger because "audiences wouldn't get it."
Still, that experience was a cakewalk compared to what Burnett went through with his 1994 film The Glass Shield. A hugely underrated study of institutional racism and moral ambiguity in the LAPD, The Glass Shield tells the (true) story of the sole black officer (Michael Boatman) in an L.A. precinct house, who finds himself torn between sticking up for an innocent black defendant (Ice Cube) and perjuring himself to support his white fellow cops. It says a lot for the movie's unapologetic complexity that he chooses the latter. Burnett wrote the script without profanity or explicit violence, to make its political themes accessible to the broadest possible audience.
Nevertheless, Burnett's clueless distributor, Miramax, tried to pressure him into softening the movie's downbeat ending. It also reportedly wanted him to add some blood and a gangsta-rap soundtrack. Burnett altered the ending and some character details slightly, but he stood fast on the rest. As a result, according to a blistering essay in Rosenbaum's Movies as Politics, Miramax all but scrapped the PG-rated movie, postponing its release for a year and dumping it without fanfare in a handful of urban markets.
"The films I make are about black characters who don't do drugs or shoot each other," Burnett explains. "That makes them harder to market. You talk to young kids now about the films they see, they're one violent act after another. Everything is cut up, and that's what life is like to them. It's fragmented--there is no consequence or repercussion." Part of his concern no doubt stems from his own sons, ages 11 and 16.
Burnett turned to television two years later with the extraordinary Nightjohn, a Disney film that also happens to be one of the most unflinching portraits of slavery in American movies. The hero is an escaped slave, Nightjohn (Carl Lumbly), who returns to the antebellum South to spread "something nobody can take away": the ability to read. So strongly does he believe in the power of words that he's willing to give up his freedom--and even, in a horrifying scene, his flesh. His sacrifice empowers a young girl, Sarny (Allison Jones), who carries on his cause and turns him into legend. The film is based on a children's novel by Gary Paulsen, but in its theme of literacy as folklore--as knowledge passed by oral tradition--it's an indelibly personal work.
Since then, Burnett has directed a high-profile Oprah Winfrey miniseries, The Wedding, and this year's Selma, Lord, Selma for television. "The interesting thing about TV is, it's quick and it's over with," he says with a chuckle. Yet even that medium comes with its own headaches. "TV is really restricted in a certain way, in the conditions and the kind of stars you have to have," he explains. "It's not good for autobiographical material. An hour and a half is just not enough time."
Which would seem to make this year's Nashville Independent Film Festival the perfect time and place to introduce Charles Burnett's films to a large new audience. Alas, that won't be the case. Ironically, the award was established too late to allow a Burnett retrospective, which would have transformed a solid festival year into a superb one. Oddly, however, this somehow fits the nature of Burnett's career. A legend revered by more people than have ever seen his films, Charles Burnett remains a phantom to most moviegoers. You'll have to seek out his films on your own, and it'll take some work. But when you find them, they're like Nightjohn's gift: They're something nobody can take away.
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