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It’s hard to imagine the landscape of American cinema today had Charles Burnett’s student thesis film, Killer of Sheep, never received a theatrical release. Made in 1977 on a budget of less than ten thousand dollars, this achingly intimate but scrupulously unsentimental portrait of a black working-class family living amid the urban blight of Watts, Los Angeles, was not produced with the intention of reaching a wide audience. Over the decades, the film steadily gained a critical following through occasional screenings, and by 1990, the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry had selected it as an important title for preservation. But it wasn’t until the 2007 premiere of a new restoration, assembled from fading 16 mm prints, that Killer of Sheep stepped into its belated spotlight.
The intervening decade has not made it much easier to see some of Burnett’s other important works, including the 1990 masterpiece To Sleep with Anger, a bluesy, tonally intricate drama that mines the tension between a middle-class South Central family and an interloper from its Old South past. This week, the film is enjoying its return to the big screen in a new restoration, and its shades of magic realism offer a chance to admire Burnett not just as a poetic urban realist but as a masterful interpreter of African-American folk culture. Alongside the upcoming rerelease of Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, this revival marks a moment of renewed visibility for the renaissance of black filmmakers that emerged at UCLA in the seventies, a movement that film scholar Clyde Taylor has called the “LA Rebellion.”
Before kicking off a week run of To Sleep with Anger at the Film Society of Lincoln Center last Friday, Burnett joined us for a conversation about his formative years at UCLA, his love of documentary pioneers Basil Wright and Joris Ivens, and how his encounters with international cinema inspired him as a filmmaker of color.
What moviegoing experiences first made you realize you wanted to be a filmmaker?
I was working part-time at the downtown library, and there was a big movie palace nearby called the Los Angeles. I would go in there just to sit in the chairs, relax, and look up at the vaulted ceilings. They would sometimes play music, like the soundtrack to For Whom the Bell Tolls. I started going there to watch movies on the big screen. I had wanted to be a photographer, but then I realized I could maybe be a cinematographer instead.
I lived close to USC, so I went there to visit, but the people there told me I had to enroll first before I could apply for a grant. I tried to explain that I needed the grant before I could enroll. It was the usual catch-22 of Hollywood—in order to be an actor, you have to be in the union, but to be in the union, you have to have a part . . . When I called up UCLA, they told me to come on over. Tuition was something like fifteen dollars!
Do you have any memories of Professor Elyseo Taylor, who is often credited with creating the conditions that made UCLA a great training ground for filmmakers of color in the seventies?
Before Taylor, there were only a few students of color in the film department. UCLA had a wonderful ethos. If you wanted to be an artist, you went there; if you wanted to work in Hollywood, you went to USC. You could make personal films at UCLA, but it was all about collaboration, so the filmmakers became very close. Elyseo Taylor introduced an ethnocommunications program, and he brought in a number of Native Americans, Latinos, Asians. I was a teaching assistant in that program, and I saw how provocative he was. He often had conflicts with other departments because he had gotten funding for the best equipment, which none of the other departments could share. He also started a film and social change department and invited a lot of people to come through, like Ousmane Sembène.
Didn’t King Vidor and Josef von Sternberg also visit?
Yes, but I wasn’t as interested in those guys because I didn’t know who they were at the time. I took classes with Basil Wright, who was a visiting lecturer, and he was really instrumental for me. He showed us his film The Song of Ceylon and some films by Robert Flaherty. It was in his class that I became a big fan of Joris Ivens, and years later I got to meet Ivens and his wife at the Flaherty Seminar—definitely one of the high points of my life.
At UCLA, you couldn’t make anything that was too Hollywood. You’d be in an auditorium with three or four other students, and the professors would tell you your film was shit and ask you why you thought you were a filmmaker. I was reminded of this at the Flaherty Seminar, which could also be vicious. Ivens was screening his series of films about China, and even though he was sick with asthma, they still attacked him. But his work made a mark on me. He taught me that films could be lyrical.
You and other filmmakers in the LA Rebellion, like Julie Dash and Billy Woodberry and Haile Gerima, were reacting against Hollywood and blaxploitation. But did you feel yourself to be in dialogue or in alliance with anyone in the broader film culture? Were you drawn to emulating foreign directors, or were there other filmmakers of color who influenced you?
Taylor introduced us to Third World Cinema, and that was when we realized what film could be and what we should be doing. It was a radical time, with a lot of unrest on our campus and at other schools—Kent State, Jackson State. But before Taylor, the film department was mostly apolitical. UCLA was located in the heart of one of the richest areas in the city—Brentwood, Bel-Air, Westwood—and the rich kids would drive down and then go back to their mansions.
As filmmakers of color in the trenches, we knew if anyone was going to get hit in the head, it was going to be us. So we had a different, more sincere attitude. We felt we could really do something. We had the Black Panthers, and there were programs on campus that brought in kids from disadvantaged areas. We started to have more international students, people from France who had been in strikes at the Sorbonne, and the film department became much more radicalized. It became a really vibrant and interesting place. For filmmakers of color who were looking for an identity and a direction, that was almost more important than the typical art-film education.
What was it like to share your work in that environment?
The best student films would screen at Royce Hall every quarter, and I remember being at one of those events. All the movies were about flower children who were just discovering sex and going up to Topanga Canyon. And I thought, What is this? I mean, you want to talk about Black Lives Matter . . . In my world, people were getting beat up with clubs and sticks, people were going to jail and disappearing. I had to drive from South Central all the way to UCLA; it was just a different environment. When I saw these films, I just thought, I can’t do this.
I don’t know what made me go talk to Basil Wright, but he told me, “You make your film.” He said, “Treat the subject with respect.” There are things that people can tell you that all of a sudden become the key to everything.
And that influence is so clear in To Sleep with Anger. One of the many extraordinary things about that film is that it doesn’t feel the need to explain the folkloric or culturally specific elements to a non-black audience. How conscious of a decision was that for you?
It was very important to me. A lot of us who were getting into film at that time were reacting against years and years of Hollywood distorting our experiences. There’s a lot in black history that deserves to be told, and so you want to be true to it. When folks tell me how to do my films, or that they don’t relate to them, it only drives me more. It wasn’t until I saw films made by people in different countries, people representing themselves, that I discovered new possibilities. It was like a whole new world.
What’s your dream project?
There’s one film I want to do in Harlem called 145th Street, a Walter Dean Myers adaptation. The book is a collection of short stories, but I’ve managed to tie them together in a single narrative. It’s this warm-hearted comedy about a character named Big Joe, an outgoing guy who wants to celebrate his own funeral before he dies. He’s not going to die anytime soon, but he figures, what the heck, let’s do it now while I’m alive to enjoy it. The script has been around for a long time, and we’ve gotten close, but we’re not there yet.