On Film

Charles Burnett & “The African American Experience”


Max Nelson

When the filmmaker Charles Burnett was three, he moved with his parents from Vicksburg, Mississippi to South Central Los Angeles. He had been born in 1947 and his family settled in Watts, where, he’d write much later, people tended to develop “two people inside them and more. You can witness them changing character in a breath.” Much of his upbringing fell to his devoutly religious grandmother, who looked after him while his mother worked long shifts at the local hospital and his largely absent father was away in the military. “One of the features of my community,” Burnett wrote in the same text, “is that it does not have a center, does not have an elder statesman, and more important, does not have roots.”

He could have said more or less the same thing about the position he ended up occupying in Hollywood. For decades he was one of the few filmmakers working within or around the studio system who could be singled out for his “portrayal of the African-American experience,” as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decorously put it when, in September, they announced he’d receive a belated Honorary Oscar next year. This has not been an easy job. He can count on little encouragement, miss no chances, rule out no resistance.

Burnett’s best films, too, lack stable centers. They drift, digress, linger on stray details and meander to the edges of the spaces they show. Twenty minutes into his first feature, Killer of Sheep (1977), we’re wrenched from the film’s central drama into a long, wide shot of a group of children running around a deserted construction site. The shell of a demolished building towers behind them, all four walls of its second story hovering over the torn-out space where its first level used to stand. We are in Watts. The black family at the center of the film moved here from the deep South, much as Burnett’s own had. But most of the kids who populate this scene so far haven’t been more than briefly sketched. They’ve passed in and out of the movie’s first act, staging mock battles in a similar lot, killing time in railway yards, throwing rocks at passing trains, playing on rooftops, and in this case hanging out on a hot day, spinning a top and playing in the building’s rubble.

As we settle into the slow rhythm of the image, Paul Robeson’s voice emerges on the soundtrack. The song he’s singing is an artifact of the 1940s. “What,” the singer asks, “is America to me? / A name, a map, the flag I see / A certain word, Democracy / What is America to me?” From that distant shot of the entire site we move to a set of close-ups: one kid’s hand winding up the top; another using a wrench to hammer away at what looks like a chunk of wall. “The house I live in,” Robeson’s voice goes on,

A plot of earth, the street,

The grocer and the butcher, and the people that I meet,

The children in the playground, the faces that I see,

All races, all religions, that’s America to me.

Then the song drops out. We’re no longer with the children but in a slaughterhouse, where the movie’s central character and one of his white coworkers are cleaning and re-positioning the hooks on which a new set of sheep are about to be hung. The only sound now is the muted noise of distant machines. When Burnett cuts to a cramped shot of the sheep themselves being lined up for the slaughter, Robeson’s voice re-appears, more softly and sadly, singing a different composition—the plaintive “Going Home.”

“The House I Live In"—the first of the two songs that score this bleak, compressed scene—was written not by Robeson but by the composer Earl Robinson and the lyricist Abel Meeropol, both white men who had at one point been Communist party members. When Frank Sinatra sang a version of it in the wartime short The House I Live In (1945) to a group of schoolchildren not much younger than the ones in Burnett’s film, it was to rebuke them for ganging up against their Jewish classmate. A couple of days after Pearl Harbor, he tells them, a Presbyterian pilot and a Jewish bombardier worked together to sink a "Jap battleship,” and “every American threw his head back and felt much better.”

There are limits even to this bloodthirsty vision of American teamwork. The kids in question here, unlike those in Burnett’s Watts, are all white. In the rendition of the song Sinatra and Robeson both sing, Meeropol’s original reference to “my neighbors white and black” has been changed to the vaguer “all races and religions"—a designation so broad it need not make viewers wonder, as the earlier line would have, why there are no black faces in the crowd. When Meeropol went to a public screening with his son to see the short for the first time, he let out a horrified curse when he saw how the words had been revised. "They’ve ruined my song,” he said.

Burnett would have been well aware of the song’s complex history. In his films—the best and most influential of which center on black couples and families in LA—music often becomes a source of tension or confusion. It commingles incompatible agendas, motives, traditions, and designs. In his second feature, My Brother’s Wedding (1983), the younger son of another Watts family struggles to reconcile his obligation to his middle-class brother with his attachment to a hotheaded, violent friend; the film begins with a preface in which an elderly man sings “Amazing Grace.” The blues songs and spirituals that fill To Sleep With Anger (1990)—"Precious Moments,“ "See, See Ryder,” “Stand By Me"—clash uneasily on the film’s soundtrack much like the middle-class family in that film, also southern transplants to California, clash with a devilish old friend from the South after they agree to give him a place to stay. In his quietly haunting PBS feature Warming by the Devil’s Fire (2003), Burnett intercut archival footage of blues musicians with a dramatic recreation of his childhood visit to a hard-drinking, blues-loving southern uncle who nonetheless ended up becoming a preacher.

It was to be expected that these songs and the singers who sang them should be constantly revised and put up for redefinition. For Burnett, this gave them a kind of kinship with the families—of various classes and religious persuasions and social strata—his movies depict. His characters tend to find themselves under pressure to remake themselves, adapt themselves to new climates and jobs, forego the religious backgrounds they’ve inherited, or re-calibrate their sense of how their home should look—to "change character in a breath.” The father in Killer of Sheep sinks deeper into depression the longer he stays in his dehumanizing slaughterhouse job. The husband in Bless Their Little Hearts (1983), which Burnett wrote and shot for the director Billy Woodberry, goes out of his head and puts his marriage in jeopardy when he can’t find work. (Woodberry’s film, newly restored by Milestone, had a revival run last spring and arrives on DVD for the first time this winter.) The black rookie cop in The Glass Shield (1994) hits a crisis with his girlfriend when she sees how far he’s complied with the racism and corruption of his otherwise all-white LAPD squad.

In Burnett’s vision it’s in domestic settings that these pressures and divisions surface. Few filmmakers give the attention he does to matters of décor, to the mementos families accumulate over time, and to the way people signal—in their faces, gestures and body language—where they stand in the spaces they call home. His camera slides around corners to reveal the figures in next-door rooms, cranes over chairs or banisters, and navigates houses with an almost nosy interest in how they’ve been done up. Houses, like songs, come to us in these movies worn and lived-in. They hint at histories of defeat and subjugation and occasional victory that it becomes the filmmaker’s job to unearth.

No one seems to have known what to do with Burnett: a black director whose influences lie in neorealism, progressive American cinema of the Forties, and radical filmmaking from Latin America and the African diaspora; who gravitates towards domestic dramas set in and around the home; who concentrates more on atmosphere and environment than on plot; and whose interest has always settled on characters with unstable relations to the houses they live in. Every theatrical feature he’s made since Killer of Sheep has had to survive a combination of production setbacks, funding shortages, studio interference, or slipshod marketing. Since the mid-Nineties he hasn’t made a single feature with theatrical distribution in the US.

He’s been sustained instead by a roll of work-for-hire: movies for children and families; a number of television productions, including a two-part film made under the auspices of Oprah Winfrey (The Wedding); a historical epic funded by the Namibian government (2007’s Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation); and, in 1999, an odd-sounding comedy about a schizophrenic interracial couple, The Annihilation of Fish, which was shelved after a disappointing festival reception. In his new book Charles Burnett: A Cinema of Symbolic Knowledge, the first such critical study Burnett has received, the film scholar James Naremore reports that he could only find that film “in university archives.”

During the past two decades Burnett’s finest movies have been short films and documentary-fiction hybrids made for TV—formats in which he’s watched less closely and has more freedom to show his imaginative range. His unproduced scripts and outlines are a tantalizing shadow filmography in themselves: biopics of such figures as Robeson and W.E.B. Du Bois; a retelling of the escape narrative of the enslaved couple William and Ellen Craft; a film about the anticolonial Algerian military leader Emir Abdelkader; an adaptation of Chester Himes’ novel The Crazy Kill. The honorary Oscar he’s now receiving is a bitter irony; he has more reason to resent than to thank the branch of the Hollywood establishment that’s retroactively congratulating him after many years of stonewalling and frustration. “I never really call myself a filmmaker,” he said in a 1997 interview, “because of the fact that it’s so infrequent that I do it.”

Burnett has not always been in such purgatory. At UCLA, where Killer of Sheep was his thesis submission, he was at the center of the renaissance of radical black filmmaking that would later become known as the “LA Rebellion.” Other directors associated with this flowering of talent included Burnett’s friends and collaborators Haile Gerima, Larry Clark and Julie Dash, the last of whom worked as an assistant director on My Brother’s Wedding. Woodberry was also among them, and the pair’s collaboration on Bless Their Little Hearts yielded something like a companion movie to Killer of Sheep. Both films give close, patient attention to the daily life of a struggling husband and wife in Watts: the wedge his meager career prospects and her overburdened home life threaten to drive through their marriage; his crisis of masculinity and the desperation to which it drives him; their frustration at having been given a less dignified station than they know they deserve. (The great theater actress Kaycee Moore, who later appeared as a member of the Gullah family at the center of Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, plays the female lead in both movies; Burnett’s daughter Angela appears as both daughters.)

Woodberry is a less quiescent and sometimes more brutal filmmaker than Burnett, and he pruned Bless Their Little Hearts of the lyrical interludes and digressions that enlivened Killer of Sheep. His patriarch (Nate Hardman) is broke and unemployed. Burnett’s hero forces Moore’s character away—after an unforgettable, silhouetted slow dance to Dinah Washington’s “This Bitter Earth"—out of something like dejected exhaustion; Woodbery’s takes up with a former lover and pushes his marriage to the edge of total collapse. (Naremore relates that Hardman "quit the production for almost two months” before he agreed to perform the harrowing ten-minute argument scene with Moore on which the film turns.) What Burnett brought to both movies, in the latter case as a writer and director of photography, was a luminous visual sensibility that shines over the burnt-out characters he filmed.

The movies Burnett himself made after Killer of Sheep don’t always recreate that effect. My Brother’s Wedding and The Glass Shield have a share of awkward scenes that bear the traces of their troubled productions. (The lead actor in the earlier of those films disappeared midway through shooting, Naremore tells us; Burnett found him resettled “in the South, where he claimed to have become an ordained minister,” and had to lure him back west.) Nor could their problems always be blamed on studio interference or constrained shoots. The critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, one of Burnett’s staunchest and most eloquent champions, nonetheless admitted that The Final Insult (1997)—a documentary-fiction hybrid film about LA’s homeless population that Burnett made with total freedom on funds from a South German TV channel—showed “that Burnett can turn out a characteristic, personal, and totally committed narrative that fails on its own terms.”

But Burnett has never been drawn to making his films look flawless. At UCLA, he was influenced by manifestos from the Latin American “Third Cinema” movement like Julio Garcia Espinosa’s “For An Imperfect Cinema,” in which that Cuban director advocated a style of filmmaking that would “discover its own answers in the course of its development” and abandon any interest in “quality or technique” for their own sakes.

Burnett did not follow Espinosa to the point of insisting that a filmmaker “should place his role as revolutionary or aspiring revolutionary above all else.” He’s always filled his movies with autobiographical material that his more programmatic influences would have denounced, and all his films suggest his deep reserves of technical precision and care. (It’s striking to compare, say, the ranges of greys and pales in Killer of Sheep’s black-and-white palette with the vivid expressionist colors that fill The Glass Shield.) He did, however, see that some jarring cuts and stilted line readings could be forgiven if they helped him capture something that counted more than elegance or panache.

What has counted above all for Burnett is respect. When he was just out of high school and eager to avoid the draft, he enrolled in a vocational program at Los Angeles Community College. For a short time he took up photography. “I bought an old 35mm still camera and went out immediately to start documenting things,” he told Naremore.

The first thing I came upon was a lady who had died of an overdose lying in the doorway of an apartment. Police were standing around keeping people away, but they didn’t bother me when I started taking pictures of the lady. When I had to stop to change film I stood under a tree on the sidewalk reloading. A young, attractive teen-age girl who had cerebral palsy slowly made her way up to me. I saw her out of the corner of my eye. She stopped in front of me and very politely asked me why I was taking pictures. I didn’t know what to say. I said something stupid, like, ‘Oh, for fun.’ She said to me, you take pictures of tragedies for fun.

“That,” he said, “was the end of my attempt at photo journalism.” His movies can be comic and salty—when Stan, the central character in Killer of Sheep, presses a hot teacup against his cheek and tells his friend it reminds him of the warmth of a woman’s skin, the other man guffaws that “I don’t go for women with malaria"—but what shines through in them above all is a solemnity and seriousness of purpose. When couples quarrel, parents and children drift apart, and (in To Sleep to Anger) a family comes to blows, they’re filmed from a cool distance and with a sadness that muffles the melodramatic energy scenes like these would otherwise give off.

In a short text from 1989 Burnett castigated mainstream American moviemaking for depending on depictions of "the worst of human behavior to provide suspense and drama.” A filmmaker embedded in the sensationalistic culture Hollywood encourages, he insisted, ought to restore something like dignity and “fraternity” to the people he or she films. This was an urgent job, Burnett argued, for black artists whose communities had been eroded by decades of discrimination in housing, policing, education, sentencing and employment. (“There has always been the attempt to destroy our consciousness of who we were, to deny the past, and to destroy the family structure.”) What was needed, for Burnett, was a sort of cinema that couched this purpose “in some aspect of a story, as for example in the negro folklore which was an important cultural necessity that not only provided humor but was a source of symbolic knowledge that allowed one to comprehend life.”

It’s from this last line that Naremore—whose previous works include fine, attentive studies of screen acting and film noir—took the title for his book. A Cinema of Symbolic Knowledge can be dispiriting. Naremore tells us that he’s passed over “several pictures that seem to me relatively unimportant,” including a Hallmark Channel film called Relative Stranger (2008). Still, he dutifully devotes more than a third of his book to Burnett’s nontheatrical and undistributed work, which he takes seriously and describes sensitively but nonetheless has to make some apologies for. On the TV movies, “there was pressure to work quickly, a constant need to make rapid adjustments, less control over the screenplay, less time to work with the actors, and no final director’s cut.” Naremore reserves especially strong praise for Nightjohn (1996)—the Gary Paulsen adaptation Burnett made for Disney about an enslaved man who teaches others to read in the year of the Nat Turner rebellion—despite “the compromises he had to accept.”

Why, one keeps asking, was Burnett stuck making these films in the first place? Naremore has good reason to take a more positive account of Burnett’s work; he’s making a case for his subject as a major filmmaker worth canonizing rather than as a failure or a victim of the system. But anyone who knows what Burnett could do with even a minimum of trust and support might feel a pulse of anger seeing him fight, in these films, just to keep from making something embarrassing or cheap. At this he succeeded well enough. Nightjohn and the PBS special Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (2003) are both intelligent, sophisticated movies that go above and beyond the standards of their genres: the Disney movie-of-the-week and the talking-head documentary, respectively.

For Burnett these films were a chance to give his audience a kind of remedial education. In interviews he’s deplored, for instance, the way state-approved high school textbooks “make the history of slavery just a way of life that did no harm to black people.” He wouldn’t be the first important realist filmmaker to turn to educational films later in his career. Years after his radically digressive, languorous Voyage to Italy (1954), Roberto Rossellini took to TV to make, as teaching tools, dramatized lives of Cartesius (1974) and Blaise Pascal (1972). But that was Rossellini’s choice. What rankles about Burnett’s case is that educational films are often the only kind he’s given the power to make.

Burnett’s insistence that movies should convey “symbolic knowledge” is a useful theme for Naremore’s book: it applies just as well to Burnett’s more fully realized features as it does to the work he did for hire. It can also make for a restrictive way of reading his films. At their best, Burnett’s movies tend to be less preoccupied with delivering knowledge than with luxuriating in detail and leaving loose ends untied.

To Sleep With Anger, for instance, the film of Burnett’s that indulges most fully in suggestive symbolism and engages most directly with what he called “negro folklore,” is also his most ambiguous and inscrutable. Gideon (Paul Butler) and Susie (Mary Alice), the couple at the center of the movie, brought a store of traditions with them when they relocated to LA from their unnamed southern hometown and built a settled life in a middle-class, predominantly black suburb. Gideon, now well into middle age, spends the film’s early scenes looking for a lost familial charm.

Harry (Danny Glover)—the gravel-voiced, charismatic old acquaintance who shows up at their door one day, ostensibly as a stop on a trip to Oakland, and slowly installs himself in their home and among their family—is a relic of the world they left. He comes with his own superstitions. (“It’s bad luck to touch a fellow with a broom,” he tells their grandson.) He carries a switchblade, drops references to juke joints and corn liquor, and inexplicably summons up a group of long-lost southern friends who “smell,” the couple’s grown, older son notices, “like mothballs.” Eventually he pits the two married sons against each other and takes over their minds and lives. If he’s not the devil, nor is he exactly human. “There’s a Georgian folktale called ‘Hairy Man,’” Burnett told two interviewers for the Journal of American Folklore in 1998. “And he, you know, will steal your soul.”

Just as disruptively, Harry also reminds the family of another legacy they tried to leave behind—one of racial violence and terror. Gideon falls ill after Harry takes him on a long walk by a railroad line, where he has a vision of shackled black men on a work crew hammering tracks into the ground. “You had to know your place,” Harry reminds Susie about their white-dominated southern hometown; she makes a point of not catching his drift. (“Those days,” she says dreamily, “you could always find something redeeming about even the worst person.”) He talks in whispers with another old Southerner about the lynching of a mutual acquaintance of theirs, whom a gang of local whites roped to a truck and dragged to death. “Those boys never did have good luck,” Harry murmurs.

Burnett never lets us decide what to make of Harry, who drops dead in the family’s kitchen at the start of the film’s unexpectedly farcical, oddball last act. A malevolent presence in the comfortable world these two decent people have built, he also becomes a speaker of unpleasant truths—the one figure in the movie who takes the full measure of the racial climate these characters inhabit and refuses to search it too long for “something redeeming.” His wildness is a kind of protest. “If you are made to feel half a man,” he tells Susie when she finally asks him to leave, “what do you think the other half is?” On a second or third viewing of To Sleep With Anger, Harry seems tragic and the film itself grim. The ones who got away from the South, in the movie’s vision, make a herculean effort to block it out. (“I don’t want to hear any jokes about black people in hell,” Susie insists at the end of the film when Gideon starts telling a long fable about how much hard work there is in paradise.) Those who didn’t become the devils who disturb and torment the ones who did.

That description might make Burnett’s outlook sound pervasively gloomy, which isn’t quite true; it’s just as often limber, buoyant, and bright. Naremore wisely devotes much of his last chapter to When It Rains (1994), a thirteen-minute-long short Burnett made four years after To Sleep With Anger, when Miramax was busy sinking The Glass Shield. With this brief portrait of a jazz musician who hits up a string of friends and acquaintances for money to help a single mother make rent, Burnett made a movie of pure exuberance, confidence, and relaxed energy. He once again had friends and family for actors, including Woodberry, and he shot them with an off-the-cuff affection and ease.

You can sense what a relief it was for Burnett to make a film like When It Rains. It became an outlet for a kind of loose-limbed playfulness he hadn’t exercised so freely since his years at UCLA. Now, according to Naremore, Burnett is working on a documentary about the desegregation of hospitals in the 1960s; a movie to raise awareness about the high levels of mercury and lead in the water supply of South Central Los Angeles; and a fiction film, called Faith and Credit, about a young woman in a small American town who goes on a campaign to help her neighbors get small business loans. The problem, as always, is funding—where it comes from and with what strings. “I submitted it to PBS, they agreed to do it, and then they just took the heart out of it,” Burnett told the filmmaker Alex Cox in 2002 about a film he’d tried to make in the late 1980s. “Anyone who gives you money wants to have their say.”