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Charles Burnett

Charles Burnett: Interviews

Edited by Robert E. Kapsis
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    Charles Burnett
    Book Description:

    Charles Burnett (b. 1944) is a groundbreaking African American filmmaker and one of this country's finest directors, yet he remains largely unknown. His films, most notably Killer of Sheep (1977) and To Sleep with Anger (1990), are considered classics, yet few filmgoers have seen them or heard of Burnett. The interviews in this volume explore this paradox and collectively shed light on the work of a rare film master whose stories bring to the screen the texture and poetry of life in the black community.The best qualities of Burnett's films-rich characterizations, morally and emotionally complex narratives, and intricately observed tales of African American life-are precisely the things that make his films a tough sell in the mass marketplace. As many of the interviews reveal, Hollywood has been largely inept in responding to this marketing challenge. "It takes an extraordinary effort to keep going," Burnett told Terrence Rafferty in 2001, "when everybody's saying to you, 'No one wants to see that kind of movie,' or 'There's no black audience.'" All the interviews selected for this volume (spanning more than three decades of Burnett's directorial career including his recent work) examine, in various degrees, Burnett's status as a true independent filmmaker and explore his motivation for making films that chronicle the black experience in America.

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-950-3
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. ix-xxvi)

    Charles Burnett is a groundbreaking African American filmmaker and one of this country’s greatest directors, yet he remains largely unknown. His films, most notablyKiller of Sheep(1977) andTo Sleep with Anger(1990), are considered classics, yet few filmgoers have seen them or heard of Burnett. The interviews in this volume explore this paradox and collectively shed light on the making of a rare film master whose work brings to the screen the texture and poetry of life in the black community.

    As a supremely talented and fiercely independent film director, Burnett makes movies according to his own unique...

  4. Chronology
    (pp. xxvii-xxx)
  5. Filmography
    (pp. xxxi-2)
  6. Black Independent American Cinema: Charles Burnett
    (pp. 3-4)
    Corine McMullin

    Working on the Coast like Ben Caldwell is Charles Burnett, whose excellentKiller of Sheepwas on view again, and whose shortThe Horsewas seen for the first time. He develops here an entirely different concept.

    “Can you call us a ‘New Wave’? No. We’re not a single school of filmmakers sharing the same ideas. We are very independent. The only points we have in common is that we are Black and we feel close to the Third World. What is relatively new is that Blacks in greater numbers have the possibility to make movies, but everyone goes in...

  7. An Artisan of Daily Life: Charles Burnett
    (pp. 5-9)
    Catherine Arnaud and Yann Lardau

    Born in the South of the United States (and profoundly marked by it), Charles Burnett grew up in Watts, the Los Angeles ghetto, which about ten years ago experienced violent disturbances, and he lives there still. A cameraman by training, he has directedSeveral Friends(1969),Killer of Sheep(1977), and a short,The Horse(1973), a prize winner at Oberhausen. He has also worked as cinematographer on many independent movies, such asYour Children Come Back to Youby Alile Sharon Larkin,Bless Their Little Heartsby Billy Woodberry, and others.

    Question: Your original training is in electronics. How...

  8. Life Drawings: Charles Burnett’s Realism
    (pp. 10-24)
    Monona Wali

    Charles Burnett, forty-four years old, is a fiercely independent Black filmmaker living in Los Angeles. His first feature film,Killer of Sheep, made while he was a student at UCLA in 1978 for ten thousand dollars, is a masterpiece of American neo-realism, a painfully humorous and tragic account of the daily life of a slaughterhouse worker in South Central L.A.Killer of Sheepwon the Critics Prize at the Berlin Film Festival and received other awards in the U.S. and abroad.My Brother’s Wedding, his second feature, made for eighty thousand dollars in 1983 and financed by the West German...

  9. The House of Spirits
    (pp. 25-27)
    Samir Hachem

    It’s a sweltering July day in South Central Los Angeles. On a quiet block of 20th Street, inside a sprawling, creaky, two-story Craftsman house with lace curtains and a worn-out front lawn, a crew of about fifty people is making a movie. In front of the Panaflex camera, an older man sits on the edge of a double bed, wearing only a burgundy pajama top, his gray pants pulled halfway down his legs. A woman in a floor-length pink nightgown, his wife, rushes in. “Gideon, what’s wrong?” she says. “I’m worn out,” he says. She finishes pulling down his pants...

  10. The Long-Distance Runner: Charles Burnett’s Quiet Revolution
    (pp. 28-37)
    Lynell George

    When the American Film Institute’s Black Independent Cinema panel convened last spring, attendees with natty dreads and bulging Filofaxes scanned the room, hoping to catch a glimpse of the latest local son done good—Charles Burnett. They had their business cards at the ready, questions carefully rehearsed for Burnett, who had captured the attention of industry types, both here and abroad, with his stately portrayal of a black family in Los Angeles.To Sleep with Anger, Burnett’s first major feature film (it received a Special Jury Prize at the U.S. Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah), offers an exquisite,...

  11. The Black Familiar
    (pp. 38-41)
    Lisa Kennedy

    Back in 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan really screwed things up for us with his essay “The Negro Family.” But first there was slavery. The absent father became the progenitor of laziness, apathy, hopelessness, poverty, pathology, ad nauseam. (Forget the male bias that lurks in Moynihan’s call for black men to assume their patriarchal rights.) The riches and disasters of family life have rarely made an appearance in film. Source of proper names and long lists of begats, each clan has lost some of its idiosyncratic meaning to that monolith—the “black community.”

    Even though Charles Burnett’s new film,To Sleep...

  12. Interview with Charles Burnett
    (pp. 42-52)
    Michel Cieutat and Michel Ciment

    The American Black independent filmmaker Charles Burnett, born in 1944, was noticed for the first time by French critics in 1981, on the occasion of the showing in Paris and at the Berlin Film Festival of his first feature filmKiller of Sheep, a remarkable account of the alienation of a worker from the Black district of Watts in Los Angeles, shot under very difficult conditions in 1977 (cf.Positif, no. 243, p. 49). This movie had been preceded by two shorts,Several Friendsin 1969, a Super 8 graduation film for UCLA, thenThe Horsein 1973. Burnett, to...

  13. An Interview with Charles Burnett
    (pp. 53-64)
    Bérénice Reynaud

    Completed in 1984,My Brother’s Wedding, Charles Burnett’s first 35mm feature, was less commercially successful than it deserved to be (perhaps because it dealt with the difficult issue of class differences within the African American community), and the filmmaker was, once again, faced with the nightmare of waiting years before he could find financing for another project. Then, in 1988, he was awarded a prestigious MacArthur Foundation Fellowship and, in 1989, a Rockefeller Foundation production grant. Meanwhile, Burnett had met Caldecot Chubb, a young producer who admired Burnett’sKiller of Sheepand wanted to help Burnett find financing for the...

  14. One on One: Charles Burnett and Charles Lane
    (pp. 65-74)
    Charles Burnett and Charles Lane

    “I saw one of Charles Lane’s films,A Place in Time, in Paris in 1980. There was a special program of Black American films screened at the FNAC. His film went over big. I met him a year later at the Berlin International Film Festival. He was wearing a trench coat that made him look like Humphrey Bogart. He had become very much the business man, chain-smoking, Scotch on the rocks at 7 a.m, with business cards that looked like something one would give out on Halloween night. He had just obtained a lawyer who was going to help him...

  15. The House I Live In: An Interview with Charles Burnett
    (pp. 75-94)
    Aida A. Hozic

    Killer of Sheep, Charles Burnett’s first feature film, was made in 1973 as his thesis project at UCLA and shot in its entirety on location in South Central Los Angeles. Beautifully filmed by Burnett himself, the film tenderly recounts a few days in the life of a slaughterhouse worker, Stan, whose existence is as bounded by invisible threads of hopelessness as that of the sheep that he is forced to kill each day. At the time of the film’s original, sporadic theatrical release in 1977, theNew York Timescritic Janet Maslin dismissedKiller of Sheepas “amateurish” and “boring.”...

  16. An Explorer of the Black Mind Looks Back, but Not in Anger
    (pp. 95-99)
    Michael Sragow

    “Faulkner put race on the table,” Charles Burnett says, “and he was aware of the black psychology. The right to exist, how to exist, the power to endure were always part of his theme.”

    Mr. Burnett, a forty-nine-year-old movie maker who grew up in the Watts section of Los Angeles, has Mississippi roots and an expansive cultural perspective. As Carl Lumbly, who co-starred in Mr. Burnett’s best-known feature, the 1990 filmTo Sleep with Anger, puts it: “Too often a director’s reference points are films or television: ‘Give me Ralph Kramden.’ Charles can take you to a particular moment in...

  17. Burnett Looks Back
    (pp. 100-102)
    Amy Taubin

    In 1990, Charles Burnett officially became a national treasure when his first feature,Killer of Sheep(1977), was designated by the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant and worthy of preservation.” In its six years, the film registry has selected 150 films:Killer of Sheepis within its purview, but so too isThe Birth of a Nation.

    Honors aside, Burnett is one of the two greatest African American directors, the other being Spike Lee. Unlike Lee, whose politics impel him into the Hollywood arena, Burnett, although based in Los Angeles, has...

  18. Violence Sells: So They’re Telling Charles Burnett
    (pp. 103-105)
    Wolf Schneider

    Is it the public that’s not interested in African American movies unless they are violent and action-laden, or is it the film industry that’s stuck on pressing black filmmakers into the urban-ghetto-guerrilla mold ofDo the Right Thing, Menace II Society, andBoyz n the Hood?

    To see the trailer for Charles Burnett’s current film,The Glass Shield, is to be bombarded with a fast-moving hip-hop cacophony of arrest and interrogation. But the movie itself uses a jazz score and complex drama to examine corruption’s insidious spread and the pitfalls of racial and gender stereotyping.

    Burnett’s last flim 1990’sTo...

  19. Above It All: Charles Burnett Puts Black Power in Subtle Films
    (pp. 106-108)
    Gary Dauphin

    Charles Burnett has a good laugh when he’s asked if there are things he wishes he’d done differently. The fifty-three-year-old director of crucially important black independents fromTo Sleep with AngertoMy Brother’s Weddingis to have a retrospective at Lincoln Center, and his reaction to all his work being screened in one place reflects the bottomline sensibility that a career outside of Hollywood instills. “Every time I see a film of mine I think of things I could have or should have done differently,” Burnett explains. “There are certainly things I would have handled differently inThe Glass...

  20. Talking with Charles Burnett
    (pp. 109-117)
    Sojin Kim and R. Mark Livengood

    Charles Burnett, a 1988 MacArthur Fellow, has written or directed nine features for television and cinema, often carving his stories of contemporary African American life against the grains of the neighborhoods of Los Angeles, his home. Burnett received his M.F.A. from the UCLA School of Film and Television, and his thesis projectKiller of Sheep(1977) was chosen by the Library of Congress for the National Film Registry. His more recent and widely distributed feature films includeTo Sleep with Anger(1990), starring Danny Glover, andThe Glass Shield(1995), which was based on actual events and dramatizes the experiences...

  21. Invisible Man
    (pp. 118-125)
    Terrence Rafferty

    When the filmmaker Charles Burnett was growing up in Los Angeles, he used to play the trumpet, and sometimes, he says, “I’d blow all day, just to hurt people.” This is rather a shocking statement, coming from this gentle, soft-spoken fifty-six-year-old man, whose movies rarely raise their voices and always seem more interested in healing than in hurting. But, as the amiable narrator of Burnett’s superb short comedyWhen It Rains(1995) observes, “We live with contradictions,” and perhaps one of the reasons this major American filmmaker is almost completely unknown to the general public is that his art, at...

  22. Set This House on Fire: Nat Turner’s Second Coming
    (pp. 126-129)
    Gerald Peary

    “I was the great-grandson of a slave owner, and he was the great-grandson of slaves,” saysSophie’s Choicenovelist William Styron, seventy-six, recalling his friendship with the late James Baldwin. “Jimmy dared write from a white point of view, and I thought that was admirable. It was at his prodding that I decided to jump into the soul of a black man. I never regretted it, though Jimmy predicted I would catch it, and I did.”

    The fiction that Baldwin inspired wasThe Confessions of Nat Turner, which reconstructs the infamous 1831 slave rebellion in Southampton, Virginia. The 1967 Pulitzer...

  23. Warming by the Devil’s Fire: Director Interview
    (pp. 130-133)
    Charles Burnett

    Historically, there’s a complex, even antagonistic, relationship between the blues—the devil’s music, Satan’s music—and the church in the black community. A lot of blues players, many of them women, left the church to pursue a career in the blues, and ended up going back at the end of their days. InWarming by the Devil’s Fire, we mentioned how Son House, who was a preacher at one time, went to jail for murder in self-defense, came out, tried to be a preacher again, then went back to playing the blues. “Georgia Tom” (whose real name was Thomas A....

  24. Charles Burnett
    (pp. 134-137)
    Doug Cummings

    Tuesday night, filmmaker Charles Burnett was invited to screen his new documentary,Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property, for a class here at Caltech and facilitate a Q&A afterward. A graduate of UCLA, Burnett is one of the most highly esteemed filmmakers currently working in the U.S. and he continues to be active in independent and black filmmaking circles. Although he has taken a less mainstream—and more ideologically nuanced—approach to his career than popular names like Spike Lee or Larry Clark, Burnett’s films (including 1977’sKiller of Sheep, 1990’sTo Sleep with Anger, and 1996’sNightjohn) are visually strong...

  25. Independent Lens: Charles Burnett
    (pp. 138-140)
    Scott Foundas

    Charles Burnett’s first feature film,Killer of Sheep(1977), remains to this day a near-mythic object, one of the first fifty films inducted into the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry, yet rarely screened and never issued on video owing to unresolved copyright issues. Meanwhile, Burnett’s second feature,My Brother’s Wedding(1983), has suffered such a clandestine existence as to makeKiller of Sheepseem likeTitanicby comparison—when I spoke with Burnett during the course of writing this story, he told me that even he doesn’t have a copy of it. And Burnett’s work of the subsequent two...

  26. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  27. Shadows of Watts, in the Light
    (pp. 141-144)
    Dave Kehr

    With the click of a mouse, Kathy Thomson brings a face out of the darkness—the face of a young African American woman, looking with sadness and concern out of a small screened window in a white frame house. The face belongs to the actress Kaycee Moore, a star of Charles Burnett’s 1977 debut featureKiller of Sheep, and it has been hidden in shadows for almost thirty years.

    Burnett, who directed, wrote, produced, edited, and shotKiller of Sheep, hasn’t seen Moore’s face in quite this way since he first photographed it. Back then, he was a student filmmaker...

  28. A Vision of Watts Still Frozen in Time
    (pp. 145-149)
    Mary McNamara

    Most student films, mercifully, do not get theatrical distribution. Certainly not thirty years after they were shot or with the combined efforts of crack film preservationists and a most persistent specialty film distributor. ButKiller of Sheep, which will open Friday at the Nuart, is not an ordinary film.

    The UCLA film-school thesis project of Charles Burnett (To Sleep with Anger, The Glass Shield) is instead a cinematic tone poem, an elegy, perhaps, or an ode to a certain time and place. Set in Watts during the mid-seventies,Killer of Sheeprefers to Stan, the main character, a husband and...

  29. This Bitter Earth
    (pp. 150-160)
    James Ponsoldt

    “When I stumbled across a 16mm print ofKiller of Sheepat film school in North Carolina, it was like finding gold. I had never seen an American film quite like it … raw, honest simplicity that left me sitting there in an excited silence. It echoed throughoutGeorge Washington, the first film that David Gordon Green and I made together.”

    —Tim Orr, cinematographer (All the Real Girls, Raising Victor Vargas)

    What sort of anxiety exists in the influence of a visionary masterpiece that is virtually unknown by a majority of the mainstream audience?

    According to music apocrypha, Brian Eno...

  30. A Conversation with Charles Burnett
    (pp. 161-167)
    David Lowery

    Charles Burnett’sKiller of Sheepwas one of those films I’d always heard mentioned here and there during my cinematic matriculation; most of what I knew about it was that I couldn’t see it, due to soundtrack rights issues that had kept it unreleased ever since it was made in 1977. But then, earlier this year, a trailer for the film began to show up in theaters. UCLA had restored the film, the soundtrack had been cleared and Milestone was going to put it out into theaters for the very first time.

    Killer of Sheepis, suffice to say, more...

  31. Charles Burnett’s Namibia Premieres at the 2007 LAFF
    (pp. 168-173)
    Diane Sippl

    Lauded as one of America’s most gifted filmmakers, Charles Burnett has just completed his largest film ever,Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation. While earning his MFA in filmmaking at UCLA, Burnett made the now classicKiller of Sheep, and on that basis he was awarded the prestigious John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship (also known as the “genius grant”) with others to follow from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the J. P. Getty Foundation. He is also the winner of the American Film Institute’s Maya Deren Award and Howard University’s Paul...

  32. Charles Burnett Celebrates a Milestone
    (pp. 174-180)
    Susan Gerhard

    Though its film stock had nearly turned to vinegar by the time UCLA stepped in with a timely restoration, Charles Burnett’sKiller of Sheepis of a vintage that only gets better with age. Its neorealist approach to the life of a neighborhood is rich, but the surprise is that it’s also as fresh as the day it was made thirty years ago. It’s difficult to locate a single visual or narrative cliché in the story of a slaughterhouse worker’s alienation amongst a family and neighborhood bustling with hopes and hijinks. That may be because the daily lives of African...

  33. Blues People
    (pp. 181-186)
    James Bell

    Writing inSight & Soundin 2002, the American critic Armond White called Charles Burnett’s 1977 debut featureKiller of Sheep“the least-known great modern movie from the United States.” But over the past year awareness of the film has grown, at least in the U.S., where its rerelease last year had critics rushing to acclaim it as a rediscovered masterpiece—something White greeted with suspicion. “Words like ‘masterpiece’ fall too easily upon the thorny history of Burnett’s debut,” he has written, arguing that it is too tidily convenient to slot the film retrospectively into the canon, leaving its champions feeling...

  34. Index
    (pp. 187-197)