Charles Burnett has long been recognized by historians as one of the greatest American film directors, and he’s won numerous important awards, including an honorary Oscar in 2017. Nevertheless, he is still relatively unknown beyond the world of committed cinephiles. This isn’t because he’s obscure or avant-garde. It’s more likely because he’s always worked outside the commercial mainstream and never trafficked in the sex and violence that appeal to your average Hollywood producer.
Burnett’s entire independent career has been dedicated to showing that black lives matter, and against the odds has resulted in outstanding feature-length work for cinema and TV—among them Killer of Sheep (1977), arguably the greatest student film ever made and the foundation of a school of black neorealism that persists today; My Brother’s Wedding (1983/2007), a fusion of comic satire and tragedy centering on an alienated, immature young man who makes bad choices; To Sleep with Anger (1990), a family drama of varying moods, combining melancholy humor with sinister, folkloric magic; The Glass Shield (1994), a realistic, sometimes expressionist depiction of racism and corruption in a Los Angeles sheriff’s department; Nightjohn (1996), a Disney-produced, family-TV movie like no other, concerning slavery on Southern plantations; Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (2003), a mix of talking-head interviews and acted scenes, resulting in the best treatment of Turner in any medium; and Warming by the Devil’s Fire (2003), a fictional, semi-autobiographical story punctuated with archival footage, celebrating blues music and showing the brutally oppressive world from which it emerged.
All the while, Burnett has made impressive shorter pictures that tend to occupy a space at the margins of his filmography. These, too, have artistic and political value. Even less expensive than usual, they gave him freedom to experiment. With few exceptions, they’re street-level narratives shot with a minimal crew, some of which emerged from his time as a student at UCLA in the late 1960s and early ’70s, and some of which carry on the spirit of that work many years later. In the student years, he had no expectation of becoming a Hollywood director and no special plans for a future; even so, he became a key figure in a group of black activists later known as the “LA Rebellion,” and he forged a personal style and political aim. Reacting against both the Blaxploitation
cycle of the ’70s and the typical social-problem picture about growth, change,
and the resolution of conflict, he chose to make loose, open-ended films about quotidian,
unending struggles of the poor and working class. As he explained to an
interviewer, he was trying to depict situations in which “you don’t necessarily
win battles; you survive.”
All Burnett’s films have been suffused with that attitude, but the shorter pictures show how much he can accomplish with relatively
little. Five of them—four of his best shorts, plus The
Final Insult, a little-known film that clocks in just shy of feature-length—can
now be seen on the Criterion Channel. The shorts were exhibited at festivals and were made
available as DVD extras or items on websites, and two of them received significant
attention: The Horse was winner of first
prize at the Oberhausen Short Film Festival, and When It Rains has been widely admired by critics. The Final Insult, on the other hand, has rarely been exhibited and has never
been given the attention it deserves.
As a group, the five have different formats, generic properties, and degrees of success, but when seen together, they provide an overview of stages in Burnett’s career and distilled illustration of his gifts and preoccupations—his talent for creating memorable vignettes from everyday life; his penchant for digressive narratives that wander beyond the central characters to depict a community; his interest in the domestic sphere and in children who witness the behavior of adults; his tendency in his later features to mix documentary and realistic fiction in intriguing ways; and his use of what might be called African-American black humor, which provides his characters with humane wisdom and a modicum of relief from oppression.