Henry G. Sanders in Killer of Sheep (1978)

Film’s Overlooked Histories: Charles Burnett and the L.A. Rebellion

The general absence of the L.A. Rebellion from most film history text books and Burnett's relative marginalization within film and media studies speaks to the socio-economic myopia and privileges that define both areas of study.

Charles Burnett: A Cinema of Symbolic Knowledge
James Naremore
University of California Press
Oct 2017

Back in the early ’90s, I sat in a “Black Film” course at the University of Delaware taught by Ed Guerrero. Film classes were still a novelty to the campus back then. Ed would pick up a phone on the wall to call back to a projectionist to screen a film. It was a simple ritual, but the pause between the request with lights dimming and the sudden appearance of a flickering image held untold possibilities. One night, the title Bless Their Little Hearts (Billy Woodberry,1984) came to life. The film concerns the struggles of a chronically unemployed husband, a wife who is the breadwinner of the family, and their three children. Charles Burnett wrote the script and assisted with the camerawork.

Outside of the class, I never heard of the L.A. Rebellion group of filmmakers. Even less familiar to me were the influences upon this movement—Third Cinema, Italian Neorealism, and other experimental avenues, which I would later discover. All of this was irrelevant as of that moment since Bless Their Little Hearts dug deep into me. I had never seen a film document people’s quotidian struggles like paying the rent and holding a steady job, concerns that likewise pervaded the working-class Irish-and-Italian-American New Jersey neighborhood I was raised in. The film’s documentary-like long shots of post-industrial devastation such as sprawling traces of abandoned factories with shattered windows— the broken dreams of an earlier age— unreeled across the screen like a familiar nightmare to anyone who had experienced factory closures and corporate flight.

The intensity and improvisation of the acting by Kaycee Moore, playing Andias, and Nate Hardman, playing Charles, caught me off guard. The ten minute long sequence where tensions finally erupt between the couple seized complete hold of me; it was like being in the room with them uncomfortably witnessing a domestic meltdown where years of resentment, pain, and general neglect rise to the surface. James Naremore, in his excellent new book on Charles Burnett, notes, “[Billy] Woodberry [the director] had said that Nate Hardman was reluctant to perform it [the scene] and quit production for almost two months because he believed—wrongly—that Moore had revealed secrets of his private life to Burnett, who used them to create the situation” (104). The emotional vulnerability shows through his acting. Little did I know, it would be nearly impossible for me to see that film again for almost 25 more years.

The L.A. Rebellion has been lately experiencing something of a resurgence of recognition. Charles Burnett’s masterful film Killer of Sheep (1977) was finally released by Milestone films in 2007—with a slightly different ending. (I reviewed the release for PopMatters in 2007). Rumor has it that Milestone will soon be releasing a restored copy of Bless Their Little Hearts this year. An excellent collection of essays on the L.A. Rebellion and accompanying oral histories was produced in 2015 in the anthology L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema edited by Allyson Nadia Field, Jan-Christopher Horak, and Jacqueline Najuma Stewart. The British Film Institute screened films by the women of the L.A. Rebellion back in June 2017, showing rare gems like A Different Image (Allie Sharon Larkin, 1982) and Water Ritual #1: An Urban Rite of Purification (Barbara McCullough, 1979). James Naremore’s book, Charles Burnett: A Cinema of Symbolic Knowledge represents the most recent piece of renewed scholarly interest in this group of filmmakers.

For those unfamiliar with the L.A. Rebellion group of filmmakers, their movement emerged in the late ’60s and extended all the way throughout the ’80s. Not unlike many politically-engaged film movements, social conflict precipitated its birth. Student rebellions at UCLA led to the creation of the area of “ethno communications”. Elyseo Taylor created a particularly influential course entitled, “Film and Social Change”, where Burnett served as a teaching assistant and guiding presence for newly arrived students into the program. Unlike UCLA’s more well-known MFA in film production, ethno communications didn’t court the studios or attempt to replicate studio production routines. As Naremore notes, instead “the production courses were supplemented by seminars on Third World aesthetics and community involvement”, leading to alternative forms of film production, distribution, and exhibition (13).

It’s shocking that Naremore’s book remains the first and only full-length study of Burnett’s work. Burnett has produced over 20 works comprised of feature length and short-form films and videos. He has written multiple screenplays and assisted countless other filmmakers with camerawork and other technical assistance. The general absence of the L.A. Rebellion from most film history text books and Burnett’s relative marginalization within film and media studies speaks to the socio-economic myopia and privileges that define both areas of study.

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Naremore is a good candidate to initiate an auteur study of Burnett. He has written succinctly on various canonical auteurs in the past like Vincente Minnelli, Stanley Kubrick, and Orson Welles. His careful close-analysis of the texture of their films helps open up new paths of understanding in often well-trodden subjects of study. Burnett, however, provides a different challenge. Unlike Naremore’s earlier books on auteurs whose films circulate widely within popular culture, much of Burnett’s work is difficult to see. As a result, Naremore has to cut back on his analysis of his films in order to provide detailed recreations of the films that most readers have not seen, which he does an excellent job of doing.

The film most readers have likely seen is Killer of Sheep, Burnett’s 1973 MFA thesis film. Although largely unavailable for many years due to music copyright issues, the film had achieved great visibility in 2007 after Milestone Films with the help of the UCLA archive created a widely circulated restored print. The Library of Congress has designated the film a “National Treasure” while the National Society of Film Critics have listed it as one of the hundred essential pictures produced in the United States. The film’s quiet study of an African-American family immersed in poverty represents a poignant tale of people’s willingness to endure. Shot in a stark style equally indebted to Italian Neorealism and Third Cinema aesthetics, Killer of Sheep embodies the inventiveness of incorporating international cinematic styles into a blues infused form of African-American filmmaking.

Gaye Shannon-Burnett and Everett Silas in My Brother’s Wedding (1983)

But Killer of Sheep has overshadowed much of Burnett’s other excellent work. As a result, Naremore’s book serves as a corrective to draw attention to other critically neglected films by Burnett. For example, My Brother’s Wedding (1983) has equally poignant moments as Killer of Sheep. Unfortunately, production problems hindered the film’s release and distribution. The lead actor disappeared during the middle of the shoot. Burnett’s methodical shooting went against the German backers’ timeline, thus causing him to produce an edited version not to his liking. Burnett’s production company eventually declared bankruptcy (Naremore 48). Only through the creation of a restored print by Milestone/Pacific Film Archive in 2007 was Burnett able to recut the film to his liking.

As Naremore and others point out, My Brother’s Wedding is an uneven film that oscillates between two styles of realism and didacticism. The realist style defines the film’s story about Pierce (Everett Silas) welcoming back his friend Soldier (Ronnie Bell) from doing a stint in prison. Both men regress to childhood exultation with one another, which leads to increasingly bad decisions. The didactic style punctuates the sections that concern Wendell’s (Monte Easter), Pierce’s brother, impending marriage to Sonia (Gaye Shannon-Burnett). Class divisions arise during this section as Sonia’s and Wendell’s success as lawyers weighs heavily against Pierce’s rootlessness and stasis working for his parents in their laundromat—a point his mother, played with verve by Jessie Holmes, never ceases to emphasize.

Burnett particularly excels when his films are allowed time to meander, where he captures the poignancy of relationships through an incidental gesture, a carefully framed action. One moving scene is when Pierce escorts Soldier home to greet his parents. In the backyard of his childhood home, Soldier hugs his mother tenderly at the front of the frame. Pierce standing mid-frame diverts his gaze to the ground, allowing for a moment of privacy. At the rear of the frame, Soldier’s father emerges from the backdoor, witnessing this tender moment between mother and son. When Solider turns around still embracing his mother, he notices his father looking on. There is a pause, an uncertainty whether this will be a welcome or confrontation between the two. Soldier walks slowly to his father who remains tense and motionless on the back porch as his mother and Pierce look on. Soldier climbs the stairs and temporarily puts out his hand for a handshake before withdrawing it and suddenly embracing his father wholeheartedly, the two closely embrace rocking back and forth. The sequence fades to black.

This is Burnett at his best, where the gestures of the actors reveal a secret backstory between the characters. Without a word expressed, we sense a difficult past between father and son, a long road of conflict and confrontation. Yet, underlying all this, runs a deep love—not unlike the opening sequence of Killer of Sheep where a young boy is being berated by his father for not sticking up for his brother. When the boy attempts to gain sympathy from his mother, she slaps him hard across the face, essentially relating that he must toughen up to survive a cruel and uncertain world. Love and conflict serve as defining poles of Burnett’s early films where parents attempt to instill lessons upon their children that might help them survive their precarious lives but at the same time often alienate children from them.

Danny Glover and Sheryl Lee Ralph in To Sleep with Anger (1990)

Another excellent and underappreciated film of Burnett’s is To Sleep with Anger (1990). It stars Danny Glover as Harry, a trickster figure, who descends upon a family of old friends and takes advantage of their hospitality by overstaying his welcome. Naremore rightfully observes that Glover “gave the most impressive performance of his career, subtly revealing the complex, contradictory aspects of Harry’s character: his charm, his guile, his creepiness, his manipulation and seductiveness, his delight in causing trouble, and occasionally his loneliness and vulnerability” (69).

With Harry’s arrival, Gideon (Paul Butler), the patriarch of the family, mysteriously falls ill. Babe Brother (Richard Brooks) begins to reveal his resentment against his father, brother, and wife for treating him like a boy instead of a man. Under Harry’s spell, Babe Brother carouses with Harry and his questionable friends of yesteryear whom he suddenly summons around him, listening to blues music, drinking homemade hootch, carrying knives and guns, and possessing a penchant for fast women.

Although To Sleep with Anger has moments of humor, it really should be understood as southern and African-American Gothic, as Naremore asserts (70). He writes, “Nightmarish moods and family violence emerge during the film and need to be expunged or resolved before comic happiness can be achieved” (70).

The acting of the entire cast is compelling. Mary Alice who plays Susie, Gideon’s wife, signifies a strong woman who can maintain the household while her husband remains bedridden. Underneath her pleasant exterior, Susie represents the family’s ballast who maintains a steady equilibrium between the warring brothers, provides childcare for her grandkids, and navigates the family across a sea of trial and tribulations. In one scene, Okra (David Robers), Harry’s friend, propositions Susie about marrying her if Gideon dies. As his intentions become more transparent, we watch Susie’s warm face slide into a stolid demeanor, her annoyance and resolve pressing just beneath her skin. She sternly states, “Excuse me, I have to go feed my dog,” before abandoning Okra at the kitchen table.

Naremore provides telling details about the ways in which the Goldwyn Company restrained the film by forcing Burnett to cut some sequences. For example, there was a scene where a character named Old John was to appear giving Gideon and Susie manure for their garden. Susie unexpectedly bestows upon him some vegetables from her garden. The details reveal the thick networks of relations that define working-class black neighborhoods, a nuance that would have added depth to the film. It provides a subtle texture of daily life. As Naremore observes, “One of Burnett’s virtues is his habit of departing from the plot to observe details of everyday life in the surrounding world” (74).

Yet depending upon the level of economic investment and the level of studio or corporate involvement determines how much Burnett can stray from the plot or not. Elsewhere in the book Naremore notes that Burnett is “most free to share his experiences and convictions when he has made relatively short pictures involving a minimal crew. These pictures are important not only because they have artistic value, but also because they rise out of what might be called Burnett’s original or instinctive element: they’re street-level narratives produced with few resources, centering on people whose lives are outside the mainstream” (216).

Although Naremore is mainly referring to more recent short films he made in the ’00s, this statement holds true of Burnett’s entire career. His most successful films are his most low-budget ones since they allow him the freedom to meander, to divert attention to plot to enter into the quotidian practices of his characters’ lives. I wish Naremore made more of this fact about how the mode of production of Burnett’s films impacted what could be seen and how it could be portrayed.

Naremore touches upon these elements, but at times the book reads like a hagiography, suggesting that Burnett has prevailed over the limits of corporate control in almost all endeavors. In part this tendency is understandable since one does not want to critique an already understudied African-American filmmaker in the first book-length study of him. But there’s a sense at times that Naremore is too close to Burnett to get critical distance, which problematizes his analysis.

Ice Cube in The Glass Shield (1994)

For example, in regards to The Glass Shield (1994) Naremore writes that Burnett abandons his neorealist style for “an expressionist color photography that generates subtly oneric, nightmarish mood” (94). This might be true, but it is not simply Burnett’s choice to abandon neorealism. The Hollywood studio system at the time of the film’s production had no room for a neorealist style that went against many of the conventions of large budget commercial filmmaking practices and aesthetics. Although Burnett resists some commercial clichés like nudity, spectacular action scenes, and a binary understanding between good and bad characters common to the L.A. crime film, the film remains deeply unsatisfactory since it still feels like a commercial form being foisted upon Burnett that he doesn’t know how to fully fuse with his grassroots style.

The acting is often stilted within the film with the main character reading more like a thesis statement about black assimilation into a racist police force than a fully developed human being. This does not mean that there are not some good moments within The Glass Shield, like when two white police officers reveal their humanity to one another as one assists his older friend who is dying of cancer. But, overall, the film feels turgid.

Strangely, Naremore doesn’t position the production of The Glass Shield within the rise of the gangsta’ film that became popular during the early ’90s and temporarily allowed a series of black male directors access to Hollywood screens. The film is the flipside of the gangsta’ film by embedding the perspective from within the police. The film capitalizes on Ice Cube’s popularity and star power by having been in a year earlier Boyz in the Hood by giving him a small part as a working-class stiff entrapped by police profiling and racist practices.

Bill Duke’s Deep Cover appeared the same year as The Glass Shield. The film also takes the perspective of the police with Lawrence Fishburne as an undercover agent who gradually slips into criminality and raises questions about police corruption and racism. Similarly, Spike Lee’s Malcolm X also comes out in 1992 that interrogates police racism while chronicling Malcolm’s rise from criminal life into a politicized African-American leader.

My point is that there was a wave of African-American studio supported filmmaking that Burnett benefited from that in part provided him the opportunity to make The Glass Shield. But by excavating the film from this context where many of the issues it addresses resonate with other African-American directed films produced around it, Naremore over-individuates and over-valorizes Burnett’s film as if it had no relation to this bigger cultural moment. One wishes at times that Naremore provided a more thoroughly contextualized understanding of the environment that Burnett was swimming within as well as the cinematic, literary, and other artistic traditions he is drawing from.

It also seems worthwhile to ask not only in relation to Burnett but in regards to the entire L.A. Rebellion school of filmmakers the viability of their alternate forms of film production. Spike Lee is a good counter-example who successfully established his own production company and knows how to successfully negotiate the studio system and commercial media in general to produce a high output of films that nonetheless remain true to his vision. Of course, Lee comes from a commercial perspective of filmmaking whereas the L.A. Rebellion filmmakers were influenced by Third Cinema and other radical counter-cinematic traditions. But as Chuck Kleinhans aptly notes, such influences “were not always useable models for new work by U.S. filmmakers and taken together did not form a coherent whole” (“Threads and Nets: The L.A. Rebellion in Retrospect and Motion”, L.A. Rebellion, 60-61).

In other words, UCLA provided a unique environment within ethno communications for the filmmakers to thrive. They had access to equipment and facilities they normally wouldn’t. Additionally, they provided each other with mutual support and a fluidity of labor that commercial media-making largely rejects. So how is one to square the circle between the influences of counter-cinematic traditions and an ability to work more regularly in a climate where commercial production and tastes prevail? Why did the filmmakers of the L.A. Rebellion not attempt to collaborate in creating an alternative production company? Did some attempt to do so but fail? Did their understandable resistance to being labelled a movement contribute to them wanting to break apart after graduation?

Haile Gerima, one of the most political of all the L.A. Rebellion filmmakers, reflects:

“Maybe we never believed a lot of what we bragged. I don’t know. But we would have fared better than what we look like now had we been united, taken it to the second level of beyond student friendship and collective to professional collective. I know some attempts happened, but it disintegrated because of our own individual insecurities and the system’s formidableness.” (“Oral Histories”, L.A. Rebellion, 347)

Regardless of the answer to such queries, Naremore’s book provides a good start in outlining Burnett’s career and making a case for the strength of much of his overlooked work. He draws attention to the innovation that defines Burnett’s later work like Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (2003) and Warming by the Devil’s Fire, where he mixes documentary and fictional elements to create engaging productions that chart the relevance of the past’s ever present impact upon the present, respectively a slave rebellion and blues music. Additionally, he identifies a series of projects that Burnett intends to make if he receives adequate backing: a history of the Civil Rights movement in US hospitals, undrinkable water in South Central L.A., and a fictional story on microfinancing called Faith and Credit.

Clearly, Burnett still has a lot to offer. Naremore does an excellent job in identifying some of the through lines that run throughout his work as well as providing needed production history that documents the difficulties that plagued the making of some of his films. Written in an accessible style, Charles Burnett: A Cinema of Symbolic Knowledge promises to make Burnett a more well-known filmmaker to the general public and perhaps, in its own minor way, might assist Burnett in financing future endeavors by providing him with wider recognition than he has received so far.