On the Questing, Questioning Filmography of Charles Burnett 


Charles Burnett: The Power to Endure
April 6-25 at MoMA

Sort of to coincide with the recent release of the Robert Kapsis-edited collection Charles Burnett: Interviews, but more because the director deserves it, MoMA is presenting nearly everything from a consistently questing and questioning filmography marked by one incomparable high point, its nearly equal follow-up, and then a mixed (but never dull) bag of shorts, features, television work, and documentaries. This series comes four years after Burnett's 1977 feature debut and best film, Killer of Sheep, saw theatrical release thanks to the efforts of the UCLA Film Archive, Milestone Films, and the director, a landmark and overdue resurrection that helped puncture if not explode Burnett's adherent "neglected master" tag. The Museum of the Moving Image did a retro in 1995, and Lincoln Center in 1997, but this more thorough go updates it with films like Burnett's 161-minute historical narrative, Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation. For the soft-spoken, pleasantly sane director (I'm going on video interviews and screening introductions) continues to work —he's now documenting Barack Obama's mother.

MoMA's series takes its title from something Burnett said about William Faulkner in a 1995 New York Times piece by Michael Sragow. The director said that "black psychology" and "the right to exist, how to exist, [and] the power to endure were always part of his theme." Burnett's cinema is special because it refuses to trivialize the complexity and sometime abominable pain and dissatisfaction of whichever moment-to-moment lives are being tolerated and endured. His best movies are not symphonies of the triumphing human spirit, but half-loving, half-despairing presentations of the perpetual pageant. They are funny out of a remedial necessity. It is also significant, of course, that they are largely about American black experiences rarely served with dignity by the medium.

No DVD purchase can be recommended with more confidence than Milestone's flawless two-disc set of Killer of Sheep. Not only does it "tack on" the great My Brother's Wedding like some common extra, but it includes both the original, rushed-to-festival version and Burnett's much-longer 2007 cut. There's also a combative Armond White essay in which he expresses his discomfort with the emptily "classy" term "masterpiece" being so routinely applied to Killer of Sheep. (White had called it that himself in his New York Press piece about the theatrical release, but about-faces are part of his master plan). He felt that insta-canonizing it like that distracted from the nuanced hardships and personal vision onscreen. There did seem to be some weird memetic groupthink about the 2007 Killer reception (all "genius," "greatest," and "masterpiece"), but that was hopefully simple fact-stating, with exaggeration added for the overdue praise, rather than anything like racist condescension. Most likely, it was harmless laziness.

A retro like MoMA's allows you to ignore superlatives and appreciate Burnett's craft, and anthropological choice of subjects, in the context of work with a range of quality. There's a program of shorts, a format Burnett has used since his days at film school at UCLA. 1969's Several Friends is a Killer of Sheep dry run, minus the ambition. A trifle about a carful of Watts pals "fitting to get a drink" and failing to go meet "freakass broads at a Hollywood party," it contains the same captured humor that will saturate the later work. The Horse (1973) is a brooding allegorical farm noir, its detailed study of the dread before a showdown a possible tribute to Once Upon a Time in the West's opening sequence (complete with whining windmill).

There's an unplaceable oddness about Charles Burnett films. Like a true independent, he's not interested in telling his stories in any way but his own. "Even something as simple as a hello" is said differently in them, said Jonathan Rosenbaum, and it's true. To Sleep with Anger (1990) keeps viewers just as off-guard as the filmic family when Danny Glover's annoying Uncle Harry Mention from back down South suddenly arrives at their South Central LA home, bearing goodwill, platitudes, and some ungodly mojo that tips everyone towards downfall. "Some people grow up and change their ways," says one relative—but Harry can't, or won't. An unwanted boor, Harry outstays his welcome and bedevils Law & Order original Richard Brooks, while Burnett burlesques the insufferableness of the idea of the Guess Who's Coming To Dinner, upright "Colored Gentleman". Burnett's family had similarly moved from the South to LA, and in To Sleep with Anger he dramatizes the tensions that still exist. Many in the LA family, in particular uppity sister-in-law Linda (Sheryl Lee Ralph), a Xerox of the fianc ée snob in My Brother's Wedding, would sooner forget the folksy, superstitious Southern past that embarrasses them. But Harry, and all the mothball-reeking "raffish friends" of his that keep materializing, force the issue.


In 1995, Burnett's racial cop drama The Glass Shield was ill-served by Miramax, who marketed it as another Menace II Society or Boyz n the Hood starring Ice Cube, even though the latter plays only a supporting role. Too bad, because though often overwrought and caricatural, the film showed Burnett's skill with more mainstream fare. The white beat cops are all beefcake racists with Bruce Dern mustaches, the white detectives (character-acting royalty M. Emmett Walsh and Michael Ironside) crypto-fascists, but Burnett isn't oblivious to the cartoonish qualities. A kind of Very Special Comic Book Movie, it even opens with comic stills.

Of the three made-for-cable movies here, by far the best is 1996's NightjohnSelma Lord Selma, about the Bloody Sunday Alabama freedom march, and Finding Buck McHenry, a modern little league bauble that becomes a Negro League baseball history lesson, are adolescent classroom stuff. Nightjohn, too, has the patient rhythms and correct politics of teaching material (it's adapted from a Gary Paulsen book), but the performances make it art. Carl Lumbly plays the title slave who's returned to the plantations from Northern freedom solely to teach slaves to read, a tool he equates wholeheartedly with power.

America Becoming, a 1991 PBS doc about shifting demographics that Burnett made with frequent collaborator Dai Sil Kim-Gibson, is an interesting time capsule with some wide-shot man-on-the-street interviews that recall Killer of Sheep in their casualness. But according to Burnett, the doc's sponsors (The Ford Foundation) spoiled what could have been a realistic portrait, darkly prophetic of impending race riots, had they not wanted to "paint a rosy picture of immigration" that shows "the melting pot working." The episode Burnett directed for The Blues in 2003, Warming by the Devil's Fire, is better, its recipe of expertly curated blues selections and fictional narrative not all that different from that in Killer of Sheep.

Burnett put so much of himself into his debut feature, that it's unsurprising that there are traces of it in all his other work, and that they all hearken back to it in some way. At the same time, he never comes close to remaking or self-plagiarizing. When he realized that he had his own subject (poor black families in Los Angeles) and his own special way to portray it, a smaller-thinking filmmaker might've tried to keep making Killer of Sheep until it was "commercial". But Burnett's interests range across too many areas, and his outsized integrity and imagination have paradoxically limited him to variety.


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