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.
Several Friends (1969)
This 16 mm film was Burnett’s second at UCLA (the first is lost), and foreshadows his celebrated MFA thesis, Killer of Sheep. It was shot in his old neighborhood, with friends and relatives as actors or members of the crew. His family was part of the post-Word-War-II, Southern-black diaspora that settled in Watts, and the disturbing first sequence, in which a bewildered little girl in a Sunday dress watches her drunken father return from Vietnam and collapse in the road, was staged behind the house where Burnett grew up.
The film enabled Burnett to show life that had never been represented with such intimacy and detail on-screen, and to demystify the process of moviemaking for Watts. Despite its brevity, Several Friends also gives us the first indication of a quality Burnett shares with Jean Renoir, a director he admired: it vividly establishes multiple flawed characters and forgives most of them because they have their reasons. The first attempt at an approach that was fully and powerfully developed in the more populated Killer, it’s almost plotless, centering chiefly on the frustrated activity of three unemployed friends played by Andy Burnett, Gene Cherry, and Charles Bracy.
Andy’s pregnant wife tries to watch a snowy TV while he angrily jacks up the volume on a recording of Dee Irwin’s “I Only Get this Feeling.” When Andy and Gene try to repair an old car, Charles arrives (playing the same bumptious character he would reprise in Killer), accompanied by a blond in a shiny dress (Donna Deitch, one of Burnett’s classmates, who became a movie director). A brief, almost wordless encounter inside the house between the blond and Andy’s wife speaks volumes about race, class, and gender. Outside, Charles explains that he’s hooked up with a “Hollywood broad” and that two of her friends, also “Hollywood broads,” are ready for an evening’s party. Andy and Gene more or less agree to go along with the idea, but when Charles leaves they spend all day in an arduous, potentially comic attempt to move a washing machine into Andy’s small kitchen, a chore that foretells a dangerous attempt to move an auto engine onto a truck in Killer.
The Horse (1973)
A different kind of film, The Horse was photographed in 16 mm color in the countryside of Paso Robles, California, during a hiatus in work on Killer of Sheep. Quietly poetic and deliberately enigmatic, it derives from a short story Burnett had written in homage to William Faulkner, whom he dreamed of one day adapting. It gives us clear evidence of his sensitivity to design, mastery of decoupage, and ability to develop dramatic tension.
The setting is a dilapidated ranch house where three white men gather on a porch and wait for something to happen. One is white-haired, wearing a rumpled business suit; another is impatient, preoccupied with maintaining the creases in his pants; and the third, in denim work clothes, relaxes and plays with a knife. A sinister dead time passes. In the field at the front of the house, another white man, in dress pants and shoes—apparently the owner of the ranch—restlessly paces and talks to himself while a black boy in jeans and a T-shirt affectionately strokes a swaybacked horse. “Where’d that boy come from?” one of the men on the porch asks, and uses a well-known racial epithet (also used in Killer, in a more paradoxical way).
Burnett’s sound design is eloquent: birdsong, wind, minatory creaking of an aged windmill, and, as dusk arrives, a few bars of nondiegetic music (Samuel Barber’s setting for James Agee’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915”). In a wide shot, we see lights of an old dump truck approaching and pulling into the field. A black man (Burnett’s fellow student Larry Clark) gets out. He’s the father of the boy, who rushes to embrace him. One of the men on the porch brings something wrapped in oilcloth to the owner—a revolver, which the owner gives to the black man, whom we now realize has been hired to kill the horse.
The killing of animals must have been often on Burnett’s mind while he made this film and worked on Killer of Sheep. In both, it serves as a metonym for a society in which the cruelest, most psychologically damaging work is assigned to the poorest and least powerful.
When It Rains (1995)
Even though it deals with poverty, this is Burnett’s most charming short film and one of his best films period. He shot it after his unhappy experience on a 1991 PBS documentary entitled America Becoming, and after the rigors of The Glass Shield, which was badly, even disgracefully marketed by Miramax. A therapeutic holiday, it took him back to Watts, and his pleasure in making it shows. He told Terrence Rafferty it was “just a little movie about blues and jazz I made with friends of mine: we got a camera, put all the equipment in a Volkswagen, and we shot here and there.” Rafferty compares it to an improvised jazz solo: “it’s a song about survival—that’s the blues component—and you can’t get the melody out of your head.”
The somewhat folkloric tale is narrated by a griot (Ayuko Babu, head of the LA Pan-African Film Festival), whose resonant voice provides the film’s bass line. “We live with contradictions,” he says. “How do you mix jazz and blues together? Part is in darkness; the other half faces the sunlight.” It’s New Year’s Day, and a single mother and her young daughter are in danger of being evicted because they’re behind in paying rent. Leaving the daughter behind, the mother goes in search of the griot, traveling from Watts to Leimert Park, a pleasant, semi-bohemian black neighborhood where a jazz festival is in progress. Burnett makes a mini-documentary of the event, showing happy faces, dancing, and the performance of a percussive band. The mother locates the griot in the crowd and he sets out to help her by going to various places around south Los Angeles and asking people for money.
A big but gentle salesman with a gift of gab, the griot encounters a variety of types—some rude, some poor but generous, and at one point a criminal who offers money if the griot will help him “take out” another crook. As Jonathan Rosenbaum has pointed out, each encounter functions like a short jazz solo or a segment of four-bar blues. At the end of the mostly frustrating day, the Good-Samaritan quest culminates with a serendipitous discovery of a legendary jazz album, and with a bartered exchange typical of poor communities. Fittingly, the film closes with a virtuoso jazz solo—black music that “faces the sunlight”—played by an elderly trumpeter on a street corner. It’s full of tricky passages and far better heard than described.
The Final Insult (1997)
Financed by South German television and shot on digital video, this is the longest, grimmest, and most formally unorthodox of the five films. The subject is homelessness in Los Angeles, which had become evident in the Reagan years and reached epidemic proportions by 1997. Burnett documents it with unsettling imagery, allowing the homeless to speak for themselves. The most unusual aspect of the film has to do with the way he combines documentary with fictional material—a technique he used effectively but with less complexity in two of his later pictures, Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property and Warming by the Devil’s Fire.
Unlike the typical documentarian, Burnett gives the narrating voice to a fictional character named Box Brown, played by Ayuko Babu. (Brown’s name is an allusion to a slave who escaped the South and had himself shipped North in a packing box.) Box wears a white shirt and dark tie and drives a battered car to work at a branch of Bank of America, where his chief job is advising the bank to lay off permanent employees and replace them with temporary workers. He drives through the streets, which we see in documentary footage of scores of people sleeping on concrete, and thinks how close he is to being one of them. After his car breaks down and has to be restarted on Sunset Boulevard, he visits his brother, who has AIDS and lives under a highway overpass, and unsuccessfully tries to get him to a doctor.
All this is interwoven with remarkable documentary material in which the homeless on the street talk about their situation. Burnett avoids interview questions and simply lets them speak. Some are apparently drug-ridden, some are mentally disturbed, and one is articulate: “There is no genuine sense of community,” he says. “People are maligned because of drugs and alcohol.” A passerby stops and says there’s something deeply wrong with America: “And if you ask me, if I was to vote for the next President I might as well vote for Jerry Lewis.”
The film also has scenes that occupy an ambiguous, liminal space between the poles of documentary and fiction. A man in Bermuda shorts pushes a shopping cart, collecting a bit of money for used cans and bottles, and turns out to be a talented singer who beautifully performs everything from a German lied to “Danny Boy.” In a scene that must have been partly staged, he passes three nicely dressed Korean ladies on a corner and sends them into astonished giggles by perfectly rendering a traditional Korean song. Is he an actual homeless person? The same question could be asked of a sweet elderly lady who lays out a blanket at several locations and tries to sell a pathetic collection of cast-off objects.
The Box Brown story ends in what looks like a fourth mode of representation, more symbolic or Godard-like than realistic. It involves a group of young black rappers (clearly acting) who become violent. Burnett has never hesitated to show what he has called, in his early essay “Inner City Blues,” “a large reactionary and/or chauvinistic point of view in the in the inner city.” In this case, however, the social fabric seems to have deteriorated more than in the days of the Watts riots. Burnett appears to be saying that without radical and communal action the result is death.
Quiet as Kept (2007)
Shot on digital video, Quiet as Kept is the shortest, and in a sad or painful way, the most humorous of these films. At the end, it also serves as Burnett’s prescription for the kind of thing black cinema at its best should do. He made it shortly after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, in honor of Mabel Haddock, head of the New Orleans Film Commission, and he obviously intended it as topical commentary. A scene rather than a story, it involves a conversation between a mother, father, and adolescent son, played by a family who acted in Warming by the Devil’s Fire. In the aftermath of the storm, they’ve been moved by FEMA from New Orleans to Houston. (The actual location where the film was shot is impossible to identify because we see only the front steps and kitchen of a generic apartment.)The glum boy sits on steps and in an internal monologue complains that his father, working on a car, is always talking about “little-ass this and little-ass that,” as in “his little-ass check to buy groceries to put in his big-ass refrigerator.” The mother returns from buying groceries, having spent what money they have, and she and the father bemoan their plight. They feel trapped, afraid of going for a walk or taking a bus. Then suddenly, unexpectedly, the conversation turns to movies. The mother says that rich folk in New Orleans don’t want blacks to return, and that Katrina should have been called Gone with the Wind. The son wants to go to a theater and see Star Wars, but the father says it costs too much—besides, it isn’t a black movie. This leads to a discussion of what constitutes good black pictures, one in which everything from Blaxploitation to old “race” movies are mentioned. No consensus emerges, but the mother gets the last word. And through her, you can hear Charles Burnett speaking.