Burnett, Charles: Director (African American of Killer of Sheep

One of the first black directors to leave their mark on the new American indie cinema was the visionary Charles Burnett.

To this day, however, he has not received the recognition he deserved, possibly due to the low-key, understated manner of his work. Burnett made his feature debut in 1973 with Killer of Sheep, but it took 4 years before it was shown publicly. Killer of Sheep is one of two films by black filmmakers (the other is Learning Tree) to be recognized by the Congress National Film Registry Act.

“Nobody is making movies like Burnett,” observed Michael Tolkin, who likened Burnett’s approach to Rossellini’s neo-realism, without the latter’s romanticism. “The people in his films live maybe ten miles from Century City, but it could be the moon.” True, Burnett may have been the first director to draw his inspiration from the black neighborhoods of L.A. Burnett has criticized Hollywood for suppressing creativity, what with studios’ eternal concern with the bottom line, which result in an inevitable split between the director’s vision and box-office reality. “People would in the most helpful way ask me why I didn’t make something more commercial,” Burnett recalled. “But I just knew that what I was doing was a different ball game. It’s not the same market. If you don’t realize those differences, you go crazy.”

Burnett claims the studios project an image of what they are not, liberal institutions. In actuality, not many people of color are involved in the decision-making. Women are not represented, because there’s a lot of hostility toward them in the business. Burnett believes that “if you get women filmmakers, you would get a different perspective.” The same applies to black filmmakers who have “distinctive stories” to tell, “new dimensions” to show.

For Burnett, most studio films perpetuate racism, because they are not interested in depicting life realistically. Films create stereotypes about black people, since they tend to appear in action-packed dramas about drugs. Mainstream producers don’t even try to get a black director to do a black theme. This means, it’s up to black directors to shake things up. Concerned with the studios’ control over the imagery of blacks, Burnett claims that “only a black director can lend ‘something special’ to a black theme.” Burnett began his career with three low-budget indies: Killer of Sheep, My Brothers’ Wedding (made in 1983 but released later, and To Sleep With Anger (1990). In terms of style, My Brother’s Wedding is placed between the gritty Killer of Sheep and the more elegant and accomplished To Sleep With Anger.

Killer of Sheep

Comprising a virtually one-man crew, Burnett shot Killer of Sheep over weekends for a whole year. The film, which was shown at the Whitney Museum in 1978 and at Toronto in 1981, draws strength from its sharp observations of a poverty-row black family. Stan (Henry Sanders), a remote, rather depressed man, works in a slaughter house (hence the title), but dreams of a better job, though possibilities are limited. Stan’s wife is bored and sexually frustrated, and his two children walk around aimlessly.

The movie offers glimpses of Stan’s monotonous life, punctuated by cuts to the slaughterhouse. Burnett said he tried “to recreate a situation without reducing life to a simple plot.” Nonetheless, photographed in a spare black and white, the film is too studied, giving the impression that Stan’s estrangement is further accentuated by the director’s own detachment. The dialogue was spoken with either insufficient or excessive emphasis by the amateur actors. Burnett shows a keen eye for life’s tiny moments, but the picture is arid and barren. The more mainstream critics found it lacking in imbuing the observed events with broader meanings.

My Brother’s Wedding

In My Brother’s Wedding, which Burnett co-produced, wrote, directed, photographed and edited, his goal was to change the image of South Central–long before the 1992 riots. For him, Watts was not an urban jungle, but a place where people lead ordinary lives: work, family, friendship. Portraying Watts as both anywhere USA and a specific locale, it’s a battleground with guns in the streets, good china on the table, blues wafting through the trees.

Embittered youth Pierce Monday (Everett Silas) is entrapped between two worlds: the “safe” comfort and middle-class existence of his lawyer brother, Wendell, about to marry an attorney, and the hell-bent world of his buddy, ex-con Soldier Richards. Like the uncle in Burnett’s later film, To Sleep with Anger, Soldier is a troublemaker, a symbol of rebellion against the things that both repel and attract Pierce. For Burnett, neither man is a satisfying role model. Wendell is smug, while Soldier is a near psychopath.

The story includes attempted murders, chases, fights and violent deaths. Burnett reduces horror to a sudden eruption of violence in the lives of ordinary people, concerned with making a living and getting through the day. As in To Sleep With Anger, he encloses his tale in biblical invocations and ironic suggestions of redemption and damnation. Burnett’s script is strong, but the pace is deliberate and the acting amateurish. As Michael Wilmington observed, what makes the film special is the way Burnett lingers on details, breaking off climaxes and entering the action halfway through, which keeps the audience in suspense.

To Sleep With Anger

Burnett’s brand of humor and original mix of drama and irony are evident in his best film, To Sleep With Anger. Set in South Central, it concerns the problems of a black middle-class family headed by Gideon (Paul Butler), a retired man who raises chickens, and his wife Suzie (Mary Alice), who teaches midwifery. The placidity of their lives is interrupted by the arrival of Harry (Danny Glover), who grew up with Gideon and Suzie in the Deep South. A strange interloper disrupting the lives of the tightly-knit family, Harry appears on their doorstep with a winning smile, claiming he’s on his way to San Francisco. Gideon and Suzie ask him to move in and make himself at home, which he does comfortably.

Harry could be both charming and rude. While Gideon and Suzie are at church, he goes through their house like a burglar, looking into drawers, reading old letters. He believes in spells, and when Sunny, Babe Brother’s son, accidentally brushes his shoes with a broom, he behaves as if the boy aimed a gun at him. At a reunion of old Southern friends in L.A., Harry insults the matronly Hattie, a former girlfriend who’s now born-again Christian, by making references to the “house” her mother ran. Hattie warns the family that Harry is evil: “Everybody associated with him winds up with pennies over his eyes.” There are hints that Harry had something to do with the murder of a black man, made to look like a lynching to put the blame on whites. Harry spreads mistrust and discord: Babe Brother and Linda split up, and Gideon falls mysteriously ill.
Harry is a demon, the soul of the Southern black sharecropper, who comes to haunt gentle folks who fondly remember the past in terms of food, music and farming. Densely written by Burnett, and played by Glover with seductive ease, Harry is by turns naive, threatening, sophisticated–and lost.

At first, as Vincent Canby noted in the N.Y. Times, To Sleep With Anger seems to take place in an idealized black middle-class landscape, identified with TV’s “Cosby Show.” But gradually it becomes a more complex, unpredictable comedy of substance, keeping the audience in suspense as to when the next change in tone. Though small in scope, To Sleep With Anger contains big comic scenes and a clamorous ending.

If you want to know more about this issue, please read my book,Cinema of Outsiders: The Rise of American Independent Film (NYU Press: hardcover; paperback).