Charles Burnett illustration Billups Allen

Jump with Both Feet: The films of Charles Burnett by Billups Allen

May 04, 2021

Splat the Movies, Episode Eight

In a filmed interview conducted by the great comic filmmaker Robert Townsend, Townsend asks legendary film director Charles Burnett “What is a Black movie?” My ears perked up. If Burnett can answer Townsend’s question, it would save me a lot of time and rumination for this profile. If there’s an answer to the question, Burnett is one to be part of the answer. He is one of the greatest living filmmakers. His influence in African American film is blatant. His films are often set in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts, where many relocated from southern states. His ability to share insight into the minutia of life in Los Angeles in the ’70s and ’80s is unprecedented. His style is stark, compared regularly to the Italian neo-realism movement that bloomed in the late ’40s after World War II, shooting with few professional actors and on location where he grew up.

Burnett graduated with a Master of Fine Arts degree from UCLA Film School in 1977. He left school with his senior theses, Killer of Sheep, under his arm. The film already had a reputation as a triumph of new wave neo-realism. Burnett’s stark view of working class Los Angeles documented an ignored side of the city largely associated with the glitz and glamour of the movie industry. His films operate as dramas teaching on a documentary level. An example is his short The Horse (1973), a film where a young child sits and talks to a horse that is about to be euthanized. This short contrasts the innocence of youthful thinking with the reality of life, but on a level equal to the difficult lifestyle in South Central Los Angeles. Here the pains of growing up are exemplified and amplified by the impending death of the animal.

In his short film Quiet as Kept (2007), Burnett shows a family discussion as a man works on his car in the driveway. The teenage son is disappointed at not being able to go to the movies because the ticket money had to go towards fixing the car. In spite of this, the man still doesn’t have enough money for the necessary oil filter. The father suggests the family take a walk instead of going to the movies, but the mother eschews the idea of taking a walk because it’s not safe for her and her teenage son to wander aimlessly in South Central as the day grows short. The discussion circles back to Hurricane Katrina and stretching their FEMA check.

All of this transpires flawlessly in a six-minute film. The dialogue is efficient and the setting of working on a car in the driveway addressees an example of a change in the working class habit of being able to live more efficiently by working on cars. The closing of auto parts stores in cities has been a long-standing complaint in the undercurrent of gentrification. The film ends with the sentiment of how there isn’t really a Black movie to see in the theaters anyway. It goes without saying there’s a lot to unpack in films like this, especially as it is presented with a hint of ironic humor.

There’s also a lot to examine in a question like “What is a Black movie?” Burnett’s answer in his interview with Robert Townsend was, “Don’t ask me.” He goes on to describe how he and his colleagues would stay up late in bars and restaurants discussing the benchmarks a “Black” movie needed to reach. In 1977, when Killer of Sheep was completed, African Americans in the film industry had recently experienced a short but prolific boost by the rise of independent cinema.

Antitrust laws put in action by the Supreme Court in 1948 aided in the downfall of what was known as the “studio system.” That meant some disintegration in the vertical integration giving studios the power to control who made movies and where they were exhibited. This aided a short growth period for independent studios and, by extension, films being made covering African American subject matters in film, among them a well-known and often discussed cluster of films known as the Blaxploitation genre.

Many of these were action films set in the ghetto where African Americans were portrayed at the forefront of some tried Hollywood action tropes. Here, African American men and women were provided the space to play heroes, often pitted against situations plaguing the Black community like drug addiction, exploitation by police and businessmen, and economic oppression. It was a short-lived period which briefly elevated the careers of actors, filmmakers, musicians, and producers like Pam Grier, Melvin Van Peebles, Antonio Fargas, Gordon Parks, William Marshall, Fred Williamson, Jim Kelly, and countless others who would influence the next generation of African American filmmakers and actors. While there are many cases to be made for misuse of stereotypes in the genre, this period found many African American artists having control over aspects of filmmaking not available to them in the past. 

But the big-budget movie was about to make a comeback with the release of the space epic Star Wars (1977). Multi-media marketing and merchandising overshadowed the independent market as studios clamored to recreate the massive success of Star Wars. Independent film suffered. An interesting example shows the trajectory of Pam Grier’s career: in a six-year period, Pam Grier went from playing lead roles as detectives and journalists in action films like Foxy Brown (1974) and Friday Foster (1975), to playing a small role as a drugged-out prostitute in the big budget Paul Newman vehicle Fort Apache the Bronx (1981). Around this time the largest budgeted Black production in film history was not performing well with white or African American audiences. Speaking retrospectively, a lot rode on the success of the musical fantasy film The Wiz (1978). Lukewarm reviews and low box office numbers set the focus of Black stories being told on a large scale back. Among this melee of change in the studio industry, Burnett had very little hope of making an immediate dent.

Killer of Sheep
(1978)

Film historian Andrew O’Hehir’s said of Killer of Sheep: “It’s hard to overemphasize how strange and ambitious and completely out of context it was for a Black urban filmmaker with no money and no reputation to make that kind of movie in 1977.”

It took a revolution in the streets for an African American filmmaker to make independent films at all.

It’s an astute observation on several levels. Firstly, it took a revolution in the streets for an African American filmmaker to make independent films at all. Using the support of Black-owned businesses as a spine for the civil rights movement was a model for independent cinema and Black-owned productions flourishing in the late ’60s and early ’70s. This was in contrast to the bloated and failing studio system that had reigned over American filmmaking in previous decades. Secondly, judged on its own merit, Killer of Sheep is a triumph for both cinema and African American cinema: an unusually poignant and realistic film with foreign influences not yet taken full hold in the American film education vernacular.

The film follows a character named Stan (Henry G. Sanders), but also works as a series of vignettes. There is an underlying plot where some friends are trying to engage Stan in some nefarious business, but the minutiae of Stan’s existence and his neighborhood are the focus of the film. One of the most famous and controversial shots of the film shows Stan arriving at an apartment building to find someone. When he arrives, the camera shows low angle shots of dozens of pre-teen children climbing the building and jumping from roof to roof. The building is three to four stories high: the children are obviously engaging in a dangerous activity. Some are even having rock fights as they climb the side of the building.

In his interview with Townsend, Burnett describes some of the criticism he received for filming these children. His answer was the children did this whether or not he is there. This is how they live. These kids have turned an apartment building with bars and ledges on the widows into a playground. It’s the sort of thing he sees often in the course of traveling the neighborhood: people having to make their own fun with limited resources. Of course, if one of them falls they could be horribly injured, but there is no one around to stop them.      

Killer of Sheep languished for decades due to limited exhibition and difficulty obtaining distribution. The film was scored right from Burnett’s record collection, a practice from the time making it difficult to obtain the music rights for distribution. This was rectified in 2007 through a grant and the film is available in a restored version on DVD. It has also been entered into the United States Film Registry. As a document of Los Angeles in the ’70s, it’s invaluable.

My Brother’s Wedding (1983)

Like Killer of Sheep, My Brother’s Wedding follows a young man in South Central named Pierce Mundy (Everett Silas). Mundy lives with his parents and works in their laundromat. His parents are worried because Pierce’s friend “Soldier” Richardson (Ronnie Bell) is to be released from jail. They believe “Soldier” is a bad influence and don’t like that Pierce is asking around town about jobs for “Soldier.” His parents wish he would think more about his own future. Pierce eagerly awaits his friend’s release because he enjoys his casual lifestyle and is anxious to have someone to hang around with.

Pierce has a brother Wendell (Monte Easter) about to marry Sonya Dubois (Gaye Shannon-Burnett). Aside from the plot surrounding the Mundys, the film plays similar to Killer of Sheep as it weaves in and out of vignettes about characters in the neighborhood. These short stories return often to the Mundys. In one scene, some people sit in a car plotting to rob the laundromat owned by the family. Burnett’s style shows the discussion in detail, revealing the robbers are incompetent, and comically so later in the film when the robbery is foiled without much effort by Mrs. Mundy.

Recurring themes in Burnett’s work are further cemented, like an almost comical causality to theft and day-to-day gunplay. Burnett’s most successful characters struggle to not be seen as sell-outs. Pierce hates his brother’s fiancé Sonya because she is educated and appears to look down on him. He eventually has to make a decision about whether or not to attend his brother’s wedding.

Recidivism is also a working theme in the film as we see Soldier’s inability to catch a break in the world outside of prison. His characters are often faced with the choice to align themselves with newer or more positive thinking or rely on their old ways. In Soldier’s case we see recidivism with regards to his ability and lack of resources to stay out of the prison system.

Recidivism is also a regular theme in Burnett’s work. In the short film The Final Insult (1997) the concept is put to a more dichotomous scrutiny. The story follows urban banker Box Brown (Ayuko Babu). Brown is determined to give aid to struggling families and is himself homeless. Living out of his car, he struggles against the urban landscape of Los Angeles to both survive and better the situation of others. Brown’s ability to see a future is shrouded by what he sees and experiences on the street every day.

To Sleep with Anger (1990)

1990’s To Sleep with Anger finds Burnett working with a bigger budget and a bankable star (Danny Glover). The story opens on Gideon (Paul Butler) and his wife, Suzie (Mary Alice) discussing how their youngest son Samuel (Richard Brooks) brings his son over for childcare at inopportune times. Samuel is also criticized by his older bother Junior (Carl Lumbly) for laziness. Junior is more of a traditionalist like his parents. He believes hard work is the road to success. They think of Samuel as lazy even though he is working for a better life for his own family. Samuel’s wife Linda (Sheryl Lee Ralph) does not like to associate with his family because of their country ways.

As the plot unfolds, Samuel is revealed to be working hard as a loan officer. Linda is in real estate. The family believes she thinks too much of herself. Linda feels the parents are regressive. When Samuel implores Linda to join him for a visit, she replies, “I haven’t read this month’s almanac.” (Referring to the yearly Farmer’s Almanac: a book farmers traditionally use as a planting and harvesting guide.) His parents and his brother don’t respect their lifestyle. They don’t see it as real work. Samuel and Linda hope for a better life for their son.

This evolves against a backdrop of establishing shots showing a blurry line between inner city life and stereotypically folksy southern behavior in South Central Los Angeles. Gideon and Suzie have a chicken coop in the yard. A nearby child is training pigeons, a custom often done in cities where pigeons are plentiful and rooftops act as launching pads. Another child struggles to play the trumpet as other children stand outside the building mocking him, pretending to blow a trumpet. Although the relationships between these activities appear somewhat acidic, it is all in a fairly balanced manner. These are the sorts of problems many families can relate to. As in much of Burnett’s work, a clear antagonist is not established.

Harry (Danny Glover) enters the plot arriving for an unscheduled visit with his old friends Gideon and Suzie. All three are old friends from the Deep South. Gideon and Suzie are more modern in their ways than they used to be, but still hold on to some of the superstitions from their previous life in the south. Harry is steeped in his southern traditions. Soon after his arrival, Harry exemplifies his superstitious ways. He chastises the grandson for touching him with a broom. He is also dismissive of Linda’s career. When told she’s in real estate he answers: “Well, she’s lovely.”

Harry’s presence is initially welcomed, and although he seems like a good guy, he has moments of exuding a surreally evil presence. It’s not long before he’s espoused several irrational stories and makes known his possession of an enormous folding knife with a rabbit’s foot dangling from the handle. His arrival brings bad luck to the family almost immediately as southern superstitions and habits seep back into the household. Samuel’s behavior also becomes erratic during Harry’s arrival. Then Gideon gets ill.

The story doesn’t come across as a direct admonishment of the south as much as a prism of ruminations on tradition and its role in modern times. Criticisms of the film by several sources complain the story appears muddled: that the story is trying to make too many points. But the variance in reactions to Harry’s visit is a less-obvious focal point that structures the story. If you’re looking for solutions to the family problems, they aren’t immediately forthcoming, but neither are they in life. Themes such as the relevance of religion among generation gaps, the saintliness of hard work verses financial gain, and the ambiguity in the definition of pious living are in play in the film. Overall, it works as an appeal to put differences aside for the greater good.

The Glass Shield (1994)

This police drama may appear somewhat typical in today’s world where police dramas dominate movies and television. But in 1994 the O.J. Simpson trial was putting the Los Angeles Police Department under a new level of public scrutiny. The cast includes Ice Cube as Teddy Woods, a young man arrested after being pulled over in vague circumstances. It falls on an African American rookie cop John Johnson (Michael Boatman) to either back up another policeman or do the right thing and explain the circumstances of the arrest.

The cast contains Hollywood veterans like Elliot Gould, M. Emmet Walsh, and Michael Ironside and a great performance by Boatman as the conflicted officer. Along the way, the script introduces a big salad of dichotomies examining the responsibilities of the police, the public, and the media. Although I found the film worthwhile, a quote from Phillip Martin of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette describes the film as, “an entirely honorable—if inevitably doomed—attempt to reconcile Burnett’s political and social concerns with the requisites of mass entertainment.” The script deals with too many complex issues to resolve, but shines in the effort to keep these issues in the public discussion even in a film meant to be marketed to a broader audience.

I disagree mostly that the film should be chastised for its broad scope. The Hollywood sheen doesn’t quite cover the edges of the film, which is somewhat troubling, but it’s an interesting film for its shockingly relevant content regarding police regulation. Again, Burnett doesn’t try to suggest there are easy answers. I also find Peter Rainer of the Los Angeles Times’ comments relevant: “It’s a rigorous, angry piece of work, but it misses out on the psychological depths that have made Burnett’s previous films among the glories of recent American independent moviemaking.” Made in his trademark style, the film may have been more effective.

In more recent years, Burnett has turned his attention and crafting to documentaries, among the topics of some Nat Turner, the blues, and Civil Rights. He continues to work in Hollywood and directing television. This canon of films from the beginning of his career contain raw filmmaking crafted by traditional standards of film history, creating realistically frank discussions about racial inequality in America and the inequity of life for those who struggle to survive financially.

Burnett's work is a reminder [that] life itself is complicated stuff, but there’s no reason to stop searching for answers.

Burnett is an icon for the notion of telling your own story. He is a triumph of making films with a DIY approach and exposing a relatable outlook towards a community historically demonized by mainstream film and media. The tone of his work presents racial inequality with realistic situations set with stark humor and tragic realism. His work is a reminder these issues—and life itself—is complicated stuff, but there’s no reason to stop searching for answers.

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Billups Allen spent his formative years in and around the Washington D.C. punk scene. He graduated from the University of Arizona with a creative writing major and a film minor and has worked in seven different record stores around the country. He currently lives in Memphis, Tenn. where he works for Goner Records, publishes Cramhole zine, contributes regularly to Razorcake, Ugly Things, and Lunchmeat magazines, and writes fiction. (cramholezine.com[email protected])

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