(1944 - present)
Three Key Films: Killer of Sheep (1977), My Brother’s Wedding (1983), To Sleep with Anger (1990)
Underrated: The Glass Shield (1994). In some respects, we’ve seen this film before. A Los Angeles police station is assigned their first black officer. Guess what happens next? But the predictability of the set-up is also the point. This is not some esoteric art film. This is your classic police procedural. Good cops, bad cops, courtroom drama and city corruption. Get Ice Cube to play the suspect and there you go. Finally, a Burnett film everyone will see. Unfortunately someone at Miramax decided to feature Ice Cube’s giant mug on the poster, disappointing audiences who expected a more significant role (and a different movie) than Cube’s small part would deliver. Time has treated this film well though. Avoiding the simplistic values and early ‘90s anachronisms that have aged so many of its contemporaries so early, The Glass Shield succeeds as an indictment of both the system and the individual, bravely scathing the sympathetic protagonist for his own poor decisions.
Unforgettable: Stan dancing with his wife in Killer of Sheep. Desensitized by his work in the slaughterhouse, stunned by his inability to support his family, and perennially shirtless, we’ve come to know Stan as a distant, desirable and drowning man. His wife wants desperately to pull him to the surface. As they dance in the darkened room, framed before a window, she kneads his skin, her mouth tracing his neck and chest. The song (Dinah Washington’s plaintive and aching “This Bitter Earth”) and the sustained mid-shot accentuate the sense of longing and hopelessness. We know that Stan will pull away.
Killer of Sheep (1977)
The Legend: Born in Jim Crow Mississippi and raised in riot-era Watts, the early years of Charles Burnett were typical of the people living in his neighborhood and atypical of the people making or being represented in film at the time. And while cinema has since aspired to capture some aspects of the South Central neighborhood where Burnett grew up—mostly the gangs, cops, and Korean groceries—we remain frighteningly unfamiliar with the lives of the people who live there. Burnett’s films are necessary because they confront this reluctance. But this is not what makes them great.
What makes Burnett great is that he is far more interested in the poetic mundanity of everyday life than he is in polemics. His early work especially relies on this quiet, observational style. Ditching plot-driven narrative for a series of loosely connected vignettes, Burnett’s seminal Killer of Sheep and his assured first short Several Friends (1969) can feel more like cultural artifacts than movies. Kids pummel a passing train with rocks; men wrestle a washing machine through a tight doorframe; a woman rubs lotion on her leg. It’s easy to forget there’s a camera in the room.
The events may seem incidental, but the effect of their accumulation is devastating. Simultaneously heartbreaking and beautiful, Killer of Sheep is a deeply effective film—edited, written, and filmed by Burnett as his master thesis for UCLA film school. The film cost less than ten grand and was made on weekends over the course of a year and what emerges is a remarkable and lasting response to the Blaxploitation flicks that ruled the day. Employing a contemporary soundtrack of pop songs and blues, the film manages that rare feat of feeling both timeless and immediate, eventually propelling the Little Master Thesis That Could to win the Critics’ Prize at the Berlin Film Festival in 1981. Unfortunately, copyright issues concerning the songs relegated the film to private screening and film festivals, but word of the unseeable picture spread. The Library of Congress placed it among the first 50 films in the National Film Registry. The National Society of Film Critics named it one of the 100 essential films of all time. Burnett had made a masterpiece. Now he had to make a career.
The path that follows is tough to navigate. There are documentaries and shorts and several features. Many of them are difficult to find, though most reward the effort. And in them all, you can find the visionary behind Killer of Sheep. To Sleep With Anger (1990), for instance, is another knockout that took home a slew of awards but was seen by far too few people. Also notable is The Final Insult (1997), a strange and resonating pseudo-documentary on L.A. homelessness. Burnett continues to work today, mostly making documentaries and films-for-television that are better than their budgets suggest, forever intertwining his deep sense of morality with a satisfying unwillingness to lean on moral judgments. Ultimately, Burnett’s great talent lies in his ability to ask the toughest questions, and then mesmerizingly refuse to answer them. Joshua Ewing Weber