While perhaps not a well-known name in mainstream media, Charles Burnett has written and directed critically acclaimed films that create intimate and realistic portraits of contemporary African American life.
Burnett was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, on 13 April 1944. Shortly thereafter, his family moved to Los Angeles. In the 1960s he studied electronics at Los Angeles Community College before receiving a master of fine arts degree in 1973 from the film school at the University of California at Los Angeles. His thesis project, Killer of Sheep (released in 1977), is recognized as one of the most poetic and insightful movies concerning contemporary African American life. Shot on 16mm film over a series of weekends and using a cast of nonprofessional actors, Killer of Sheep tells the story of a blue-collar worker in south-central Los Angeles. The visually austere film details this ordinary workman’s everyday interactions with his family and neighbors. What makes Killer of Sheep distinctive is the way in which Burnett refuses to sensationalize either his plot or his characters, a pointed response to Hollywood’s stereotypical depictions of African Americans in the 1960s and 1970s. Instead, this film, like his subsequent films, strives to depict life realistically and personally. His characters are neither heroes nor villains, and the circumstances they encounter are neither purely tragic nor simply comic. While some critics describe Burnett’s works as plotless, those who praise his films point out the way in which he draws attention to the beauty and significance of life’s quotidian rhythms. In 1990 the Library of Congress selected Killer of Sheep as one of the second group of twenty-five films to be included in the National Film Registry. Despite its many accolades, licensing concerns and poor distribution relegated the movie to obscurity until 2007, when it was fully restored and blown up to 35mm. Its rerelease brought international acclaim.
Burnett’s next project, My Brother’s Wedding (1983), concentrates on generational differences and class tensions within the family sphere, once again providing a refreshingly realistic depiction of human relationships. While appreciated by movie critics, Burnett’s second film, like his first, never found a wide public audience.
In 1988 Burnett received a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation “genius” award, and he soon began work on his next feature film, To Sleep with Anger (1990). Starring Danny Glover, To Sleep with Anger tells the story of a black middle-class family as it deals with issues of race and cultural identity. The movie is deeply concerned with the ties between past and present and the bonds between individual and family. In contrast to the neorealism of Killer of Sheep, To Sleep with Anger is more akin to a parable. Burnett’s film again received praise within artistic circles, winning three Independent Spirit Awards in 1991 (Best Director and Best Screenplay for Burnett and Best Actor for Glover), though the public paid it little attention.
Over the next few years Burnett continued to work in film and television to address important issues in modern society, particularly those concerning the African American community. Some of his more notable projects during this time were The Glass Shield (1995), a Hallmark Hall of Fame made-for-television film; Night John (1996); and The Wedding (1998), a TV miniseries produced by Oprah Winfrey. Burnett’s recent work includes the 2003 documentary, Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property; a short film, Quiet as Kept (2007); and Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation (2007), a feature film about Namibia’s fight for independence from apartheid-era South Africa.
- Manohla Dargis, New York Times (30 March 2007)
- Tom and Sara Pendergast, eds., International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, vol. 4, Directors (2000)