Let's start with a bold claim: "I think a strong case can be made that Charles Burnett is the most gifted and important black filmmaker this country has ever had," film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum argued in a 1996 Chicago Reader review of Burnett's Nightjohn. "But there’s a fair chance you’ve never heard of him..." The L.A.-based director's work has found a new audience in recent years: His first two feature films, Killer of Sheep (1977) and My Brother's Wedding (1983), both unhurried, slice-of-life portrayals of working-class African-American communities, were re-released theatrically and to home video in the past decade. But there's still a chance you're hearing his name for the first time.
Indy audiences will no longer have an excuse: Six of Burnett's films will screen this weekend at the IU Cinema in Bloomington, including To Sleep with Anger (1990), a family drama invested with Southern black magic that features Danny Glover as a charismatic trickster, and The Glass Shield (1995), an ostensibly traditional cop drama that takes police corruption more seriously than any procedural. Killer of Sheep, Burnett's UCLA thesis film about a benumbed slaughterhouse worker who sleepwalks between moments of everyday transcendence (a cup of coffee, his wife's embrace, a Dinah Washington tune), will screen Thursday at The Toby, as part of a collaboration between the IMA, the IU Cinema and the IU Black Film Center/Archive. Burnett will attend the IMA screening after lecturing earlier in the day in Bloomington.
Burnett, 57, is presently developing several projects, though because either the script and financing or both aren't yet in place for any them, he jokes that "none of them are really real." Still in gestation are 145th Street, based on a young adult short story collection set in Spanish Harlem; Faith in Credit, which concerns micro-financing in a small town; a dramatic feature film about Paul Robeson; and documentaries about Obama's mother, hospital desegregation in the '60s and a man who ran around the world.
NUVO: What attracts you to projects? Is there a through-line we can draw between all the stuff you're working on?
Burnett: Strangely enough, they're all about something or someone who effects change in society; who contributes something or does important work; who helps communities or the world.
NUVO: Is it at all fair to contrast your current work with your earlier work, and to say that those early films were less about those who changed the world?
Burnett: Well, the earliest ones were more about private individuals to a certain extent, where only a little community knows about them. I think the people that we're doing stories about are larger in life as individuals than the people in the earlier films. It's hard to explain: I think they're different, but not really, because I think the idea of my filmmaking is to encourage people to see things in a different way, in a more positive way, and be activists in a certain sense. I think it's all the same, more or less. Even in these other films, like the one on Paul Robeson, it still focuses on his humanity.
NUVO: So even in a somewhat bleak film like Killer of Sheep, there's this emphasis on the common humanity of characters.
Burnett: And also on the fact that he endured and he survived, and that's a positive thing. I never looked at it as bleak, as such; there's not that much humor or anything like that, but, when I was growing up, that people were able to survive was all you can ask for, basically. The other things — getting rich; accomplishing something — they're good, but if you hold your family intact in some sort of moral environment, then that's as positive as you're going to get.
NUVO: Does a retrospective prompt you to look back on your work? Do you think of it as a consistent body of work like some directors?
Barnett: Strangely enough, I don't really think about it. You're so busy trying to get to the next one and trying to get to the next one. With the early ones, I really had control over them, so that's why you can't really compare, because when you're dealing with someone else's money, it's a whole different ballgame. When you see films over and over again, all those mistakes you've made in them are sort of magnified. You're always critical of your work; you're never quite satisfied. Each time you want to do a another one, you want to do it better than the last one, but it never quite happens.
NUVO: You've worked in venues that aren't necessarily associated with independent film: for the Hallmark Channel, the Disney Channel, Oprah's production company. What are the advantages and drawbacks of that, and what does that say about what an independent filmmaker needs to do to keep working?
Burnett: It's hard for me because I'm not really successful at it. It's really a struggle for a lot of independent filmmakers in a lot of ways. I wish I could get back to being able to doing my own films, with money that has no strings attached to it. Disney was very good in many ways because they were surprisingly interested in doing a film that depicted the horrors of slavery [Nightjohn]. But it was still their film in a lot of ways, because of a certain style they have, a certain audience. You have to live within those circumstances, but if there's something you don't like, you don't do it. But there's a lot of things that are OK; you say, 'I can do something with this.' You can't do everything, but you can do enough to be happy, maybe help someone to see something differently.
I was just at a screening of Nightjohn at CalArts the other day, and some students came up and said I saw this in grade school and it changed their life. One young lady came up and said, 'This really changed my whole attitude about race relationships,' because she had come from a very conservative family. In fact, I was fixing my yard, and my brother had hired a worker who was helping me. We were talking about slavery, and the guy that he hired didn't know me. And he was saying that if he was a slave, he would be a nightjohn. He asked me have I heard of it? And I said, 'Yeah, kinda; I made a film about it.' And he said they screened it in his class. He said he was going to go back and tell his teacher that he had met the guy who directed Nightjohn. That was Disney film, so even though you look at Disney as a provider of pure entertainment, in this case, they did something of social value. And they did Selma, Lord, Selma too, for ABC.
NUVO: How do you sum up the factors that make it difficult for someone like yourself to make films on his own terms? Does it have to do with economics, race, with the kind of stories they like to tell?
Burnett: It's all of those things; you can't really put your finger on it. You think it's one thing, and it's clearly other things as well. I think they have a certain idea of what film is supposed to be about, and if you're interested in doing things that are more socially inclined, that's not necessarily a good niche.
NUVO: They're not often interested in films of social justice.
Burnett: In all honestly, if it's a black serious film, there's some idea that it's not going to do well, it's not going to have an audience. Strangely enough, when you screen the independent films you've made, people tend to ask, when are we going to see more of these films. You may get that small audience, but it may not be enough to hit a home run wherever they go.
NUVO: Do you feel heartened by the development of different avenues for independent filmmakers of getting their work out there — say via the Internet?
Burnett: I think it's very positive. What it does is it allows beginning filmmakers to get their work out there. But, I think, for older filmmakers who have been around and have used film actors, you feel that, at a certain point, you're exploiting them without paying them. A lot of people I know are really looking for paying jobs. Unless you get a group to say, let's do this, we'll all take a share of everything; we can't get paid right now, but we'll go out and try to make something as a group...I was talking to someone the other day about how I need to get back and start making my own films, but I have to find a way to use talent without exploiting them.