The films of Charles Burnett cut deep in spite of the fact that that they were deeply cut. The palpable absence of undistributed titles, unrealized projects and studio-enforced edits acts like a vacuum of negative space against which the beautiful and jagged fragments of a frustrated career must be judged.
Killer of Sheep, his now-lauded 1977 feature debut made as an MFA thesis film while at UCLA, made a splash on the festival circuit but moldered in the archives for thirty years before finally receiving a theatrical distribution. An unfinished edit of his follow-up, My Brother’s Wedding (1983), was shipped off to New Directors/New Films by his producers without Burnett’s blessing, resulting in a lukewarm critical reception and, again, no theatrical distribution. He finally got a movie into theaters with To Sleep with Anger (1990), thanks in no small part to the casting of Danny Glover, but subsequently felt that the Samuel Goldwyn Company’s indifferent marketing campaign doomed the film to limp box-office performance. His 1994 police drama, The Glass Shield, went through similar distributor pains with Miramax, who deceptively sold the movie along the lines of such early-90s guns-and-gangs hits as Boyz n the Hood and Menace II Society—again to lackluster financial results. Since the mid-1990s, Burnett has worked primarily in television. Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation (2007), his first feature not specifically made for TV in nearly a decade, played the far ends of the festival circuit to little fanfare.
So it’s hardly surprising to find many discussions of Burnett bracketed by regretful commentary on a mangled career and unjustified obscurity. “The least well-known great American filmmaker,” goes the well-known blurb by critic and longtime Burnett admirer Armond White. And even a cursory look at Burnett’s work reveals the artistry White refers to. The frustration is amplified by the fact that this lack of financial, public and (for many years) critical support has their roots in Burnett’s status as an African American director whose films have opposed the dominant cinematic portrayals of American black life: whether it be the blaxploitation films of the 1970s or, later, the aforementioned life-in-the-hood crime sagas by John Singleton and the Hughes Brothers. It’s an artistic goal and political project that has informed Burnett’s work since his UCLA days in the mid-1970s, where he and such notable fellow students as Julie Dash and Haile Gerima explicitly challenged filmic stereotypes about race.
Burnett’s focus on the upending of racial assumptions within the cinematic mainstream has hardly gone unnoticed by those critics who have championed his work. This makes the persistent focus upon his relative anonymity amongst average filmgoers at once well-intentioned and somewhat contradictory. Wouldn’t it logically follow that a filmmaker who outwardly defines his movies against conventional narrative tropes, ideological underpinnings, and industrial practices not be known by the vast majority of moviegoers? An emphasis on Burnett’s outsider status tends to dominant the conversation surrounding his work in less-than-illuminating ways. The focus shifts away from the films themselves and towards the writers, whose implicit good taste and cultural sensitivity are bolstered by their praise of this “unknown” master. Writing in Senses of Cinema, Nelson Kim wryly points out that “on the rare occasion [Burnett’s] work attracts any notice in the mainstream press, the article will be sure to mention how little attention his work receives in the mainstream press.”
I say this not to justify the ghettoizing (in multiple senses) of Burnett’s films, nor to dismiss the full-throated and eloquent praise that critics like White have bestowed on Burnett. Still, the growing availability of Burnett’s work on home-viewing platforms— including the DVD releases of both Killer of Sheep and the director’s cut of My Brother’s Wedding—and career-spanning retrospectives like the one running from April 6-25 at the Museum of Modern Art troubles the dominant critical focus on Burnett as an auteur shoved to the sidelines. It feels like as good a moment any to shift the focus more decisively towards analyzing the qualities of his filmography that inspire such devotion amongst his followers. Acknowledging the implicit cultural and institutional forces that keep an artist like Burnett from achieving wider commercial fame and fortune, it’s equally worth noting the ways that Burnett’s films themselves turn off moviegoers used to narrowly-defined portrayals of black society—and offer multiple rewards for those who plumb their rich and contradictory depths.
Of course, “contradictory” implies an artistic or intellectual incongruity within Burnett’s work, which doesn’t quite get at its unique essence. His films are not fighting against themselves so much as figuring out a cinematic language by which to express the complexities and cross-currents of contemporary black experience. This process feels most clearly-defined in Killer of Sheep. Burnett’s chronicle of slaughterhouse worker Stan (Henry G. Sanders) and his family as they teeter on the brink of poverty in the Watts section of Los Angeles offers a variant of establishment art-house narrative strategies. Thinly-connected snapshots of daily life place mood and texture over linear plot progression, with seeming narrative stasis underlining stagnation of economic and social opportunity. But his elliptical treatment of the material moves past the faux-ambiguous symbolism and calculated randomness of so many arty “slices of life,” imbuing his characters’ hardscrabble existence with a genuine—and genuinely haunting—mystery. What to make, for example, of those frequent cutaways to the sheep in Stan’s place of work? Are they stand-ins for Stan and the others, unwittingly placed on a dead-end assembly line by forces beyond their control? Do their guileless countenances further underline the juxtaposition between Stan’s bloody professional obligations and gentle private demeanor? Burnett’s watchful camera and atypical editing patterns elude simplistic interpretation, safe-guarding the film’s evocative indeterminacy.
It’s jarring to move from the episodic, Neorealist-inflected Killer of Sheep to the seemingly more straightforward plots seen in Burnett’s next three fictional films, all of which (as with Killer of Sheep) he wrote and directed. Compared to the unnamed ennui that grips Stan, thirty-year-old semi-screw-up Pierce (Everett Silas), the protagonist of My Brother’s Wedding, has more clear-cut problems. He’s agreed to be best man at the wedding for middle-class lawyer brother Wendell (Monte Easter) and his condescending fiancée Sonia (Gaye Shannon-Burnett), despite having contentious relationships with both. Meanwhile, he’s trying to keep his best friend from ending up back in prison, or worse. To Sleep with Anger feels a little more unusual as it charts a middle-class family’s travails after the arrival of a mysterious friend (Glover) from “back home” in the South. But the disillusionment of The Glass Shield’s eager-beaver police rookie J.J. (Michael Boatman) as he discovers racism and corruption within the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department doesn’t feel far from NYPD Blue territory. On paper, it would appear that Burnett films became less indeterminate over the years, in both the messages they offer and the means by which they convey them. One winces to see so eloquent a humanist as Burnett resorting to caricature now and again in these movies. My Brother’s Wedding’s Sonia offers as a particularly stilted take on the exclusionary pretensions of the black middle class.
Yet the more you sink into these films’ particular rhythms, the more their seemingly clear-cut ideas begin to ripple with anguished uncertainty. Subplots bubble to the surface only to fall away, leaving not so much a narrative imprint as an enticingly diffuse perfume in their wake. Scenes will fade away at an unexpected moment, giving primacy to a look or gesture rather than the forwarding of plot information. It’s a curious amalgam of casually-driven storytelling and meandering, moody character study, and it can take awhile to get used to. Certainly, the black-and-white cinematography and on-the-ground shooting style of Killer of Sheep gets you in the art-house mood more readily than the conventional set-ups inMy Brother’s Wedding or To Sleep with Anger. Getting on his wavelength doesn’t require submission, but engagement. You must actively search the frame for telling details and resonances that complicate Burnett’s already intricate worlds. Pierce may come off as the height of callow when loafing about his parents’ dry-cleaning business, but look how tenderly he cares for neighborhood elders Big Daddy and Big Momma (Tim Wright and Cora Lee Day). Harry’s shark grin and gravelly intonations imply that the family’s misfortunes might stem from his conjuring of dark spirits. But, really, might this not say more about the other characters’ own ambivalences with regards to their collective Southern heritage? Few films can feel so on-the-nose in the moment and so difficult to pin down in retrospect. Locating what gives Burnett’s work this exceptional quality can be difficult. A suggestion: look to the openings. My Brother’s Wedding begins with an unnamed man singing the blues against the black background, cut off from the diegetic world. To Sleep with Anger finds family patriarch Gideon (Paul Butler) sitting next to a table as flames pop up all around—and eventually all over—him. These leaps into thematic vignettes or poetic abstractions float over the films like a cloud, casting unexpected shadows on the proceedings below and occasionally threatening to shower the narrative world with indefinite symbols and mythic allusions.
For those raised on a steady representational diet of black men as violent criminals or poverty-choked drug addicts, Burnett’s protagonists can jar as much as his idiosyncratic narrative rhythms. His heroes come full of doubts and insecurities of a distinctly existential variety. They feel fundamentally confused over how a black man can live an honorable and satisfied existence in modern-day America. The past is marked by both sustaining tradition and soul-deadening prejudice. (As To Sleep with Anger implies, the two are not dichotomous entities so much as a murky swirl.) The present offers explicit forms of sustained racism, like The Glass Shield’s bilious, back-slapping boys club of white cops. More often, the racial limitations are quiet and systemic, as seen in Pierce’ dead-end choice between his friend’s incarceration merry-go-round and his brother’s slick selling out. These psychological burdens prompt the most visceral stylistic flourishes in Burnett’s generally unflashy work. Pierce’s no-way-out final dilemma gains an ominous power from the way Burnett inexorably zooms his camera in on the ring he is supposed to offer at his brother’s nuptials. The Glass Shield’s hot oranges and icy blues crop up with increasing frequency as the film spins its tangled web of systemic rot and moral compromise, a feverish spiral that Burnett marks with jagged cuts and claustrophobic frames that are frequently penetrated by accusing fingers, scowling faces, and cocked weapons.
Almost miraculously, however, saving grace remains a real possibility in Burnett’s world. It can be found within the larger community, but is usually located specifically in the familial unit. Burnett’s films place the black family prominently at its center, rejecting the lingering stereotypes of crack-addled single moms and deadbeat drug-slinging dads. This doesn’t mean he shies away from the family’s flaws and fault lines. He often funnels the toll of his male protagonists’ struggles through a given film’s wife/mother character, a move that can feel a bit reductive even as it produces some of his most emotionally cutting moments. (I’m thinking of the boys-will-be-boys dinner party overseen by Harry in To Sleep with Anger, in which the career-woman spouse of the family’s youngest son tearfully submits to serving the men their food in a temporally-ambiguous single take.) The bonds between husbands and wives and parents and children offer Burnett’s troubled men a shelter from the storm. For the viewer, meanwhile, it allows moments of plain-spoken tenderness to burst through his worlds’ anxiety and ennui. There may not be a more beautiful heartbreaker in all of Burnett’s oeuvre than Stan and his wife (Kaycee Moore) slow-dancing to Dinah Washington’s “This Bitter Earth”. Their swaying bodies shrouded in mid-afternoon shadow, it’s a momentary connection etched in chiaroscuro and emboldened by Washington’s soaring melancholy.
As middling box office and continued industrial insouciance have resulted in fewer original projects, Burnett has taken this affection for the domestic unit and turned it towards making family films for television. Movies like Nightjohn (1996) and Selma, Lord, Selma (1999) tackle African American history in a fairly straightforward manner, lacking the poetic allusiveness of Killer of Sheep or To Sleep with Anger. If given the opportunity to see them at Moma or elsewhere, though, take the chance. (The same goes for his TV documentary American Becoming (1991), a layered snapshot of early-90s multicultural discourse.) These unexpectedly stirring films capture a young girl’s experiences during slavery and the Civil Right Movement, respectively, in modest, vivid strokes. A casually communitarian spirit radiates from their portrayals of networks of black families and friends. Those who watch these films will not be able to locate Burnett as distinctly within them, which speaks to the issues of financial sustainability and social visibility that plague Burnett’s career even now. To think that kids might get their first filmic glimpses of these seminal moments in black history through the lens of Burnett’s camera, though, marks some kind of small triumph. If his cinema teaches us anything, it’s that the little victories often count the most.