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.