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.
NUVO: It seems like with the re-release of your first two films that there's a greater awareness of your early work, as well as your whole body of work.
Burnett: The things that Dennis Doros and Amy [Heller] are doing at Milestone really lifted me up out of the swamp, so to speak. They did a tremendous job getting the word out there about my previous work. If I had them earlier, maybe it would have been a different story. But I think they were largely responsible for any kind of revival. In terms of retrospectives...When I first had one, I thought you had to be dead to have one. And I still think that: Is this the end? Are they trying to tell me something, in a sense. I found it usual because I never felt I had made enough films. I always thought I had to make a number of films before I retired, before I really became considered being a filmmaker, or being able to teach film. When you look at these other people, and you see how many films they've made — that's a real retrospective, in that sense. Mine would be a very short retrospective, comparatively speaking.
NUVO: With Orson Welles, more attention tends to be focused on Kane than anything. By comparison, do you ever find it frustrating that a lot more attention is focused on Killer of Sheep as opposed to your more recent work?
Burnett: You always want to talk about your more recent work and get that out there. But whatever works. I'm not going to bite the hand that feeds me. I think that what happens is when you go over a film enough times, it's kind of difficult to talk about it, because you feel like you're repeating everything. So it's always hard to find something new to say, and then I forget about the time and a lot of things about the film. It's a strange sort of feeling. It's the sort of thing, I guess, when you do a play every day. Sometimes you've got to keep energized, to find the energy to keep it up. I feel the same way with Killer of Sheep; I'm very happy that it's out there, but at the same time the questions become kind of dream-like. They're easy questions to answer, but you can't.
NUVO: Fair enough. Well, at this point, I don't know if I should put any other questions to you about Killer of Sheep, but have you had any recent thoughts about it? Or, what do you typically say when you introduce it?
Burnett: Well, I just tell them it's my UCLA thesis film. Maybe some of the reasons how I did it, why I did it: To help kids in the neighborhood, who worked on the film.
NUVO: Speaking of student films, can you tell about the class you're teaching at CalArts?
Burnett: Well, I've been over at CalArts for a year. First of all, I always say I'm not a teacher, I don't have any particular syllabus or structure to this thing because I just got it. It's kind of an awkward feeling, in a way. You don't know what to expect from students — and you expect a lot more, in a certain sense, from students. You realize that they're going to soon be leaving, to be competitive in the market, and they'd better get their act together. And they're just, sort of, less aggressive. When we were at UCLA, it was so competitive.
NUVO: They don't seem as hungry?
Burnett: Yeah, they're less cutthroat. And these guys really need to challenge themselves; every moment, make the best of it. Maybe it's just my expectations. It was a different makeup than at CalArts. There was a mass of black students at the time — not a mass, but comparatively speaking, but there were, like, 20 black students in the film department, and they all had a mandate, because they were in Film and Social Change, to make films that said something about society. That's not the case here; they're into every different thing.
NUVO: Is there less of need to tell the kind of stories you did in Killer of Sheep and My Brother's Wedding?
Burnett: Well, in a certain sense, but I feel like, more than ever, the world is in a crisis, at all levels. In education, the economy; moralistically-speaking. A lot of friends of mine are really suffering; losing homes, jobs, getting fired, asking for help. Maybe it's just on my level that I'm seeing it; maybe these kids are immune to it because they're still getting money from their parents, I don't know.
NUVO: I'd like to talk about your film When It Rains [a short film about a jazz musician trying to raise rent money for a friend].
Burnett: It was a response to having done a film, a Hollywood film like The Glass Shield, where, comparatively speaking, you have this sort of rigor. After that I just wanted to do my own thing. This was an opportunity; I just wrote this little thing up, got together some friends, and we just spent the day making this thing work. It's not an anti-rap movie, but it is in a way. Jazz used to be very big, in my life and the community, with a lot of jazz clubs. When we were kids, we always talked about wanting to go down to The Lighthouse, The Parisian Room, all these other jazz places; we couldn't do it. It wasn't until later, when I grew up, I was able to go to The Parisian Room just before it was knocked down. And other places like that had totally changed; there was this vacuum.
Rap can be good and effective and can say some really interesting things socially. But the stuff that sells and they play sometimes has a negative aesthetic. I was standing next at this place one time, next to this guy selling hot dogs. He had this loud rap music on, with some of the most obscene lyrics, and these kids were buying hot dogs. And you wonder, we're they listening to this or was it just noise. If that would have been my parents, they would have gone up and said something, thrown the radio on the ground; they come from a Southern family where you don't do that kind of stuff. It was disturbing to me, and I'm really open in a lot of ways. I wanted to do something that made a comment on that kind of thing. The guy who had the jazz album was a jazz musician. He played jazz with a lot of famous players, though he didn't actually play the trumpet. It was like the blues in a way, where you get an idea and play with it, where you have your own personal style and add to it.
NUVO: I wonder if what you lose on those kind of projects is the opportunity to add little authorial touches, or can you still sneak them in?
Burnett: Each film I make, some friend of mine says, "This isn't a Charles Burnett film. You should write your own film, and then it'll be a Charles Burnett film." No matter what film I do. There's a lot of factors that have a bigger impact than producers. They have a big impact, but just the nature of the business, of having to shoot a film in a certain amount of time; having to schedule, where you can't contemplate a lot of shots and have to have things ready at the time; where you can only do so many setups a day, and you start looking for compromise where you can get out of that scene quickly. Within that framework, you have to kind of squeeze in your particular sensibilities, and it shows up a little bit, but not as much as when you have the freedom to do what you want and the time to do it. And it has to do with financing; if you don't have the money to get the dolly shot you wanted, the location you want. You can't shoot in New York, so you shoot in Toronto, which doesn't look like New York. And then you have weather conditions to deal with; the whole season changes, and you're stuck with a continuity problem. We were shooting this baseball scene in September. It looked like summer, but we saw this brown leaf in the forest, and every day we would use that as a barometer — and, all the sudden, everything was in color, and we were dead then. You're fighting the elements — and people. That's why I don't really criticize other people's films too much, because you don't know what wars the director fought.