Charles Burnett: A Cinema of Symbolic Knowledge

Charles Burnett: A Cinema of Symbolic Knowledge

by James Naremore

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In the first book devoted to Charles Burnett, a crucial figure in the history of American cinema often regarded as the most influential member of the L.A. Rebellion group of African American filmmakers, James Naremore provides a close critical study of all Burnett’s major pictures for movies and television, including Killer of Sheep, To Sleep with Anger, The Glass Shield, Nightjohn, The Wedding, Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property, and Warming by the Devil’s Fire. Having accessed new information and rarely seen material, Naremore shows that Burnett’s career has developed against the odds and that his artistry, social criticism, humor, and commitment to what he calls “symbolic knowledge” have given his work enduring value for American culture.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520285538
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 10/17/2017
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 250
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

James Naremore is Chancellor's Professor Emeritus at Indiana University and author of The Magic World of Orson Welles, Acting in the Cinema, More than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts, On Kubrick, and An Invention without a Future: Essays on Cinema.

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A Cinema of Symbolic Knowledge

CHARLES BURNETT, WHOM CRITIC Jonathan Rosenbaum has described as the country's most important African American film director, is relatively unknown outside the world of committed cinephiles. One of the many reasons he deserves greater attention is that virtually the whole of his remarkable career has been devoted to the proposition that Black Lives Matter. His feature pictures have dealt with poor black families struggling to survive in Los Angeles (Killer of Sheep [1977]), generational or social-class tensions that threaten to split black families apart (To Sleep with Anger [1990]), police murders and incarcerations of innocent black men (The Glass Shield [1994]), black attempts to achieve literacy under the nightmarish conditions of plantation-era slavery (Nightjohn [1996]), and the bloody Namibian war for independence from South Africa (Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation [2007]). His experimental documentaries and short films have concerned the Nat Turner rebellion (Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property [2003]), the poverty of a black single mother (When It Rains [1995]), urban homelessness (The Final Insult [1997]), and the displacement of blacks in the wake of Hurricane Katrina (Quiet as Kept [2007]). Even his lively, semidocumentary celebration of blues music (Warming by the Devil's Fire [2003]) is filled with archival material showing that behind the music is a history of lynching and enforced labor of blacks in the American South. As I write he's at work on two documentaries, one about the 1960s civil rights movement to end segregated hospitals, and the other, in cooperation with the Watts Community Action Center, about chemical poisoning of water in South Central Los Angeles. He recently told Spanish interviewers that the "stand your ground" law and the wave of police shootings of unarmed blacks in the United States are reversions to pre-1960s terrorism directed against the black community. "I live in fear every day," he told the interviewers. "Every time my sons leave their house, I worry about them coming back" (Miguez and Paz 2016, 68–69).

To frame Burnett only in these terms, however, is to limit and potentially ghettoize his importance. Burnett is a major film artist whose work involves a nuanced representation of conflicts and affectionate bonds not only within black communities but also between blacks and whites; his films demonstrate generosity of spirit, defamiliarizing power, and general relevance as social criticism. "[T]o call yourself a black filmmaker," he has said, "is a political statement and has the effect of causing less opportunities to work or have your film produced. ... People ask why I call myself a black filmmaker and I respond by saying that I was given that title because I didn't fit with the mainstream. The fact of the matter also is I do make films that focus on the black community. I'm like a subset because in actual fact I make films about America" (Miguez and Paz 2016, 65).

Unfortunately cultural, social, economic, and political conditions in the United States are such that a filmmaker of Burnett's integrity and sense of purpose is given few opportunities to reach a large public and sometimes even to practice his art. There's nothing obscure about his work (several of his pictures are straightforward history lessons aimed at teenagers), but he resists melodrama; doesn't traffic in sex and violence; and assumes a caring, thoughtful audience. Hence, his work doesn't appeal to your average Hollywood producer. In an era when "independent film" in the United States has become a signifier of niche marketing, Burnett has remained about as authentic an independent as one can be and is faced with all the disadvantages and disappointments such a position entails. Filmmaking, he has pointed out, requires "people who can finance a film and understand what you're trying to do and agree and sympathize with you and who feel the same passion you do and want to help you get it done. In this business, it doesn't happen that way. You have to take an idea and try to sell it to people ... Some people don't get it and you go in knowing it's going to be a hard sell" (Martin and Julien 2009, 29).

Burnett's16mm Killer of Sheep, completed in 1973 as an MFA thesis at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and shown at a few theatrical venues in 1977, has been listed as one of the one hundred essential pictures in U.S. history by the National Society of Film Critics and was among the first films to be designated a "National Treasure" by the Library of Congress, but it wasn't widely available for viewing until 2007, when it was restored by UCLA preservationist Ross Lipman and produced on DVD by Steven Soderbergh and Milestone Films. Burnett's next feature, the 35mm My Brother's Wedding (1984), was completed with the partial assistance of a Guggenheim Fellowship and was well received by critics but took three years to make and was given only limited release. During the late 1970s and 1980s Burnett produced, wrote, directed, and photographed his films, plus photographing Haile Gerima's Bush Mama (1979), contributing photography and editing to Julie Dash's Illusions (1982), and writing and photographing Billy Woodberry's Bless Their Little Hearts (1984), all the while supporting himself by teaching filmmaking and working at a script agency in Los Angeles. A MacArthur "genius" grant and collaboration with Danny Glover and producer Edward Pressman helped him raise more than $1 million for his first widely exhibited picture, To Sleep with Anger, but digital versions of this extraordinary film were unavailable in the United States for many years. Burnett subsequently directed two films that might be described as Hollywood genre projects, The Glass Shield (1994) and The Annihilation of Fish (1999), although the results were unconventional by any standard; the first was handled unintelligently by Miramax and the second never found a distributor. He has also made several brilliant shorts and documentaries, as well as a series of made-for-television movies for such organizations as Disney, the Hallmark Channel, and Oprah Winfrey. He avoids the sleek comedy style made popular in recent years by black directors Kevin Rodney Sullivan and Tyler Perry, and this, together with his interest in emotion rather than blood-and-sex spectacle, has resulted in his finding only sporadic work at the margins of the marketplace, including the outstanding Disney TV movie Nightjohn; several short films; some documentaries; and the half-documentary, half-fictional Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property. Burnett's career has involved more than the usual battles to maintain financing and artistic control, even in the case of Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation, a wide-screen color film shot in Africa. The development of digital cinema has helped him in certain ways but has also required that he move away from the fundamentally photographic aesthetic with which he began. "I never really call myself a filmmaker," he once told Bernard Weintraub, "because of the fact that it's so infrequent that I do it" (interview in New York Times, January 30, 1997).

Since Burnett made that statement, he has directed fifteen films of varying lengths under varying production conditions for movie theaters or U.S. and European television, thus building an important if not widely known career. In this book I have tried to present a straightforward, reasonably comprehensive critical study of his work in roughly chronological fashion. I write for those who already know Burnett's films, but also in hopes of piquing the curiosity of those who may not know them. Because some of the films are difficult to see, I've interwoven detailed description with commentary. I haven't discussed several pictures that seem to me relatively unimportant. For example, I've omitted the ninety-minute PBS-TV documentary entitled America'Becoming (1991), which he directed, photographed, and cowrote with the aid of a Rockefeller grant. It's a competent film about how immigrants have contributed to the national imaginary, but Burnett was bitterly disappointed by the restrictions PBS placed on him. He and his producer, Dai Sil Kim-Gibson, had to fight to include a segment on a black community in Philadelphia and were prevented from doing a segment on Native Americans; whenever their on-site discoveries conflicted with scholarly research, they were distrusted, and they had to follow predetermined dictates. "In the end," he has said, "it became a nightmare" (Miguez and Paz 2016, 67). I've also omitted discussion of one of his TV films, Relative Stranger (2008), which he directed for the Hallmark Channel. It tells the story of a former football star who has abandoned his middle-class family and been reduced to driving a cab in Chicago; when this character's father dies, he returns to the family for the reading of the will and gradually confronts his shame, healing old wounds. The sentimentality of the story is exacerbated by an almost wall-to-wall musical score, but Burnett does a fine job of keeping the acting understated, and gets an especially good performance from Eriq La Salle in the leading role.

Certain aspects of Burnett's work that I have emphasized in this book should be mentioned at the outset and can be described in terms of artists or films he has publicly praised. He once remarked to Michael Sragow at the New York Times that William Faulkner (like Burnett, born in Mississippi) was important because he "put race on the table" and because "the right to exist, how to exist, the power to endure were always part of his theme" (January 1, 1995). As Faulkner had put it in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he wanted to help readers "endure and prevail." Several of Burnett's films involve a physical and psychological struggle to endure under circumstances more impoverished and cruel than those in Faulkner's novels, but through an exact attention to suffering and a rueful sense of humor that Burnett's critics have underemphasized, they dramatize endurance and offer a measure of redemption. Burnett also shares something of Faulkner's reverence for preindustrial or agrarian culture: in his case, the arts, religion, and satirical folklore that blacks brought with them from the South into the northern and western cities. One of his recurring themes is the country versus the city, expressed through family traditions or manners that once helped enslaved or segregated communities survive but were later threatened by urban discrimination.

Much of Burnett's early work was shot in the streets using nonprofessional actors, and for that reason some commentators have assumed that Italian neorealism influenced him. When asked about this in interviews, he has praised Roberto Rossellini's Paisan (1946) and Umberto D. (1952), Pier Paolo Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), and Allesandro Blasetti's little-known 1860 (1934). He has also said that he admires the contrast between the neorealists' spare simplicity and underlying complexity, and that "you can't find any other form as poetic as neo-realism" (Martin and Julien 2009, 10). He usually adds, however, that he had no special interest in the Italians when he began. (More likely candidates for influence were the early films of Nelson Pereira dos Santos and Ousmane Sembene, which Burnett saw as a student at UCLA.) Armand White, in liner notes to the DVD edition of Killer of Sheep, emphasizes that "Burnett's astringent view of poverty and quotidian meanness is the opposite of DeSica's plangent sentiment." I agree, but there's something pertinent in Burnett's avowed interest in the "poetic." This may account for the fact that Jean Vigo's L'Atalante (1934) is one of his favorite pictures ( Kapsis 2011, 66). Vigo's film achieves a mix of naturalistic asperity and surrealism, and in a somewhat analogous way Burnett's To Sleep with Anger infuses the story of an ordinary black family in Los Angeles with oneiric, magical, and folkloric qualities. Killer of Sheep is a more realistic kind of film, but its power derives in some degree from its beautifully selected music and almost magical images of poor children at play in the streets.

Children and young people are especially important in Burnett's films (another characteristic he shares with the neorealists, not only in Italy but also in Latin America). They function sometimes as onlookers, sometimes as leading characters or central points of view, and sometimes as the target audience. Significantly, his first student film with a synchronized sound track, the twenty-nine-minute Several Friends (1969), opens with a shot involving a child. The setting is a sunlit, dusty alleyway running behind fenced houses in the Watts area of Los Angeles. (It's the alley behind the house where Burnett once lived.) At the right of the screen a drunken soldier in a U.S. Army uniform staggers a few steps, gripping a whiskey bottle in one hand and weaving as if his legs are about to give way. At the left a little girl in a bright Sunday dress, not much older than a toddler, stands almost as unsteadily as the soldier and looks on in mute confusion. Cut to a low-angle shot from over her shoulder as a car suddenly drives up and stops. Two young men lean out the car's window and one of them shouts, "Where's your daddy at?" The little girl awkwardly points a finger toward the drunkard. The car drives off, and from over the little girl's shoulder we see that the soldier has fallen to the ground and is barely conscious.

Several Friends isn't as bleak as this may sound; it has comic scenes, although it repeatedly emphasizes the characters' inability to deal with the social forces that determine their lives. A film of symptomatic vignettes, it was photographed in the neighborhood where Burnett grew up and is more typical of his early work and instincts as a filmmaker than are his more tightly plotted later films; like Killer of Sheep, it has the raw, nonjudgmental quality of a fly-on-the wall documentary, a loving sensitivity to quotidian speech and gesture, and the elliptical structure of jazz. In a larger sense, it's symptomatic of Burnett's abiding interests. Like everything he has done, it conveys an unpuritanical but moral concern. Unlike the face-on-the-barroom-floor melodramas of the D. W. Griffith era or the social-uplift films of Oscar Micheaux, it has less to do with individuals than with a community in need of a compass. The characters' loss of direction is the result of mostly unseen conditions outside the black ghetto (the uniformed black soldier gives indirect evidence of those conditions, especially when we realize that Several Friends was made at the height of the Vietnam War) but is intensified by the difficulty of achieving transformative consciousness from within the ghetto.

In "Inner City Blues" (1989), a short essay that serves as a kind of manifesto of Burnett's aims during the early period of his career, he compares poor American blacks to the Italian villagers in Ignazio Silone's novel Bread and Wine, in which a revolutionary tries to explain "that certain things — food and shelter and the right to happiness — belong to everyone, but the villagers can't conceive these things as a part of their reality" (223). In the ghetto, Burnett says, daily life is ruled by immediate, elemental responses to pain and pleasure; furthermore, "politically speaking, there is a large reactionary and/or chauvinistic point of view in the inner city" (224). The child in Several Friends is heir to an environment in which the ground for social action has been so deeply eroded or crushed by racism that it barely exists.

Conditions in U.S. cities have in some respects grown worse since Burnett began his career: black children are shot dead in the crossfire from neighborhood gangs, and innocent young black men continue to be killed by cops. In Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America (2015), Jill Leovy, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, points out that although African American males make up only 6 percent of the U.S. population, they account for 40 percent of U.S. deaths by murder. They're also, as Ava DuVernay's 2016 documentary 13th shows, by far the largest group of incarcerated prisoners in what amounts in many cases to a new form of slavery. The criminal justice system in most of the country has never properly served the black population, economic inequity has reached grotesque proportions, and forms of de facto segregation still exist. "One of the features of my community," Burnett writes in his 1989 essay, "is that it does not have roots; in essence it is just a wall with graffiti written on it" (225). The attempt to exert influence through cinema is inhibited or blocked, not only by the commercial marketplace but also by the larger culture's systematic attempt to destroy the black consciousness of history and tradition. "The situation is such," Burnett grimly observes, "that one is always asked to compromise one's integrity, and if the socially oriented film is finally made, its showing will generally be limited and the very ones it is made for and about will probably never see it" (224).


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

1 A Cinema of Symbolic Knowledge 1

2 Beginnings 9

3 Killer of Sheep (1977) 24

4 My Brothers Wedding (1983) 47

5 To Sleep with Anger (1990) 66

6 The Glass Shield (1994) 92

7 Three Films for Young Adults and Families: Selma, Lord, Selma (1999), Finding Buck McHenry (2000), and Nightjohn (1996) 116

8 The Wedding (1998) 143

9 The Annihilation of Fish (1999) 157

10 Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (2003) 164

11 Warming by the Devil's Fire (2003) 177

12 Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation (2007) 189

13 Two Screenplays: Bless Their Little Hearts (1984) and Man in a Basket (2003) 199

14 In His Element: Three Short Films and an Epilogue 216

Filmography 231

References 241

Index 245

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