Nurtured by the turmoil of the 1960s, Charles Burnett continues to march to his own cinematic drummer
Charles Burnett’s list of accomplishments rival those of any filmmaker, past or present. He has been lauded by prestigious organizations such as the African American Film Critics Association, the American Film Institute, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and the Sundance Institute. One of his most prestigious titles has even been selected by the Library of Congress as one of the first 50 motion pictures for the National Film Registry.
Charles Burnett’s prestigious film titles aside from “Killer of Sheep” include, “My Brother’s Wedding (1983),” To Sleep with Anger (1990),” “The Glass Shield (1994),” “The Wedding (TV, 1998),” and the TV documentary, “Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (2003).”
The registry declared “The Killer of Sheep” a national treasure worthy of permanent preservation due to it being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” Largely anonymous to the film-going public as a whole, he was given an Honorary Award (i.e. Oscar) from the Academy’s Board of Governors in 2017. Perhaps most tellingly, he won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant in 1988 for his overall body of work, an accolade that has eluded household names such as Coppola, Lee, Scorsese, and Spielberg.
Now nearing his eighth decade, Charles Burnett has been dubbed “...the nation’s least-known great filmmaker and most gifted Black director,” by none other than The New York Times. Even so, he still struggles to secure funding for future projects in spite of his prominence in the canon of cinematic excellence.
Rites of Passage
“People were tired of being pushed around and lied to.”
—Charles Burnett on the
systematic abuse experienced in Watts.
Traditionally, the migration of Negroes to California and the West Coast involved natives of Louisiana and Texas, but as with everything– there are exceptions. Charles Burnett’s Vicksburg, Miss. origins did not preclude his assimilation into the growing community of Watts. Superficially progressive, the wide-open West still had vestiges of repression. Most notable was the existence of the “sundown towns.” Thought to be a relic of the segregationist South, these so-called sundown towns made a point to exclude Blacks and other ethnic minorities from specific areas after dark.
These included Baldwin Hills and View Park, which ironically became bastions of African-American upward mobility a decade or two later. As a child, Burnett had a speech impediment and became withdrawn and observant. In this, he shares a connection to two well-known filmmakers whose youthful afflictions inhibited active participation in the world around them.
Francis Ford Coppola; who suffered from polio and Martin Scorsese; who suffered with asthma both encountered hindrances with regard to their social interactions. These affiliations simultaneously heightened their visual perceptions and contributed to their future careers.
Burnett attributes his hindrance to success in avoiding the destructive gang culture. Young Charles did well in electronics, and track and field at Fremont High School. Movie making, in spite of the close proximity of Hollywood, was a pipe dream in that it was more practical to be a doctor or brain surgeon if you were Black. Moving on to Los Angeles City College (LACC), he continued and graduated with an electronics degree and would later transition to interests in photography and creative writing.
In addition to the far-fetched dreams of moviemaking, tension arose between the young Black men of that time period and the LAPD. The L.A.P.D.’s 77th Division at Main and Broadway had a well-established ritual for randomly arresting Black kids during this period. Once in custody they habitually emerged from the one story building badly beaten up, their injuries were excused by the police as if they’d “fallen down the stairs”.
Around this time, Watts resident Marquette Frye was notoriously stopped for driving drunk in his white Chevrolet Corvair. The arresting officers were from a different law enforcement organization, the California Highway Patrol, but the ritualistic mistreatment boiled over. A common enough occurrence, this DUI had an emotionally charged back story. Fye’s detainment was merely the triggering point for the mayhem that followed.
“There was an explosion,” Burnett recalls. This resulted in the 1965 events alternatively known as the Watts Rebellion, Riots, or Uprising, from August 11th-16th and would impact the nation and the career trajectory of Charles Burnett. Burnett, another young Black victim of police mistreatment, was making his regular bus commute south into South Los Angeles but avoided entanglement in the civil unrest. By this point, Burnett, an avid moviegoer, frequented movie palaces like the “Triple A,” the “Mayfair,” and the “Manchester,” formerly on the east side. It was at this time that his scholastic interests evolved as he maturated from LACC to UCLA.
Developing A Black Aesthetic
“What is the interest in seeing the worst of mankind, continuously?”
—Charles Burnett on the
saturation of violence in cinema.
By the 1960s and 70s, the film department became a magnet for a group of talented film students that became known as “the LA Rebellion.” These individuals, largely but not exclusively Black, differed from their counterparts at USC in that they eschewed the mandates of commercialism. They were in favor of the foreign influences of the French New Wave and Italian Neo-realism that came out of post-war Europe.
Among the talented group of film students was one of the first Black instructors in Westwood– Elyseo J. Taylor, along with British documentary filmmaker Basil Wright. Race was a non-issue as Black and Whites worked collectively on individual films. These included classmate Yolande du Luart, a White Frenchwoman who directed a documentary on a UCLA radical professor. Du Luart came to star in the eponymously titled “Angela Davis: Portrait of a Revolutionary,” in 1972.
Liberal sensibilities stirred up a score of community programs, including the Watts Writers Workshop, which in turn stimulated the political climate on campus, along with the Black Panther/US Organization shooting at Campbell Hall, and the firing of Professor Davis by then Governor Ronald Reagan.
The growing American involvement in Vietnam prompted a generation of young folks, Black and White alike, to pursue higher education and the coveted student deferments to avoid death or dismemberment on foreign soil. Young Burnett was among them, prompted by the economic benefits of cheap campus food and UCLA’s excellent healthcare program.
These youthful cinephiles were abetted by outside mentors as well, among them actress Mae Mercer, whose singing talents won her a lucrative following in France. A following which in turn enabled her film collaborations with Clint Eastwood, and afforded her a mansion on Mulholland Drive. This became a gathering place for the LA Rebellion social group as they argued about the definition of what a “Black film” should be, and collaborated on individual projects.
As the years passed and Burnett was slated to do a master’s thesis, he turned his camera toward his old neighborhood and conjured up a “slice of life” narrative of Black citizens in a working-class milieu. Funded by a series of grants, he crafted an 83-minute montage in which his protagonists engaged in an endless cycle of struggle and survival. Every iota of energy is expelled through reenacting lives whose soul-numbing labor at a local slaughterhouse remains permanently etched in the brains of citizens to come. The title, (i.e. “Killer of Sheep”), and the endless task of avoiding the vacuum of the criminal justice system that continues to plague inner-city residents in the present millennium.
Never meant to be seen outside the academic community, “Killer of Sheep” slowly garnered a reputation over the years via sporadic screenings and festivals, leading to recognition in 1990 by the Library of Congress. After the turn of the century, its status gained momentum and became available on DVD. Burnett eventually received acknowledgment by the Academy for his body of work in 2017.
Unrequited Dreams & the impact of media on society
“We didn’t speak the same language.”
—Charles Burnett on his inability to be embraced by the Hollywood Establishment.
Burnett proceeded to explore the themes of class conflict and racial oppression throughout the next century. The passage of time and critical acclaim did not ensure financial success. His fellow alumni shared the same experience with the exception of Walter Gordon, better known as Jamaa Fanaka whose “Penitentiary” series enjoyed box office success. Along with belated acclaim came overtures from the system he consciously opposed.
Burnett was then offered the direction of a project stemming from a Village Voice article on the proliferation of inner-city drug distribution that became the blockbuster “New Jack City.” Offended by the rash of hyper-violence and sexualization in vogue, he turned it down. “They commercialize some of the worst things,” he commented.
Burnett became involved in talks to bring a concept based on the writings of street-lit pioneer Donald Goines to the screen. Intrigued by the life of a person who succumbed to the very evils he documented, Burnett eventually lost interest as the studios resisted any departure from the tropes of cliché and stereotype.
“One of the things you find in the industry is that people will encourage you to say things and project bad images of Black people, but they will protect their own images.”
Burnett retains an aura of optimism, along with an opposition to cliches and stereotypes.
A pet project of bringing the story of Civil War hero/U.S. Congressman Robert Smalls remains in development hell. A dream project of doing a screen adaptation of Hungarian writer Arthur Koestler’s novel “Darkness at Noon” ferments in his psyche. Burnett remains a lifelong resident of Los Angeles and is married to actress/costume designer/producer Gaye Shannon-Burnett. Together they have two sons, one of whom pursues his father’s cinematic legacy as a teacher in the Chicago area and keeping the filmmaking dream alive.
A complete filmography of this seminal director may be found at https://www.imdb.com/ name/nm0122344/.
Tags: Charles Burnett, Watts Riots, UCLA