Start From Things You Know

With the re-release of To Sleep With Anger, filmmaker Charles Burnett talks about his life, work and black independent cinema

In the almost 40 years since he completed Killer of Sheep (1977), his first feature film produced as a thesis project at the UCLA School of Theater, Film, and Television, Charles Burnett has remained an anomaly. Despite the film receiving some favourable reviews and winning an award at the Berlin International Film Festival, many people were not able to see Killer of Sheep until 2007, when the original 16mm print was restored and rights issues regarding Burnett’s use of music were cleared for release. By this time, Burnett was mostly working in television, having made a series of features, shorts, and documentaries. But in the preceding three decades, Burnett had left behind a body of work that is remarkable in its presentation of working class black life in America, most notably in the three landmark features he made between 1977 and 1990 – the aforementioned Killer of Sheep, My Brother’s Wedding (1983), To Sleep With Anger (1990). These films, much like Burnett himself, were hiding in plain sight.

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Charles Burnett, Killer of Sheep, 1977, film still

The reevaluation of Burnett’s work has also renewed interest in his classmates from UCLA. Commonly referred to as the LA Rebellion, these former students – Billy Woodberry, Julie Dash, Haile Gerima, to name a few – vary stylistically but share a common bond of emanating from the same training ground. Throughout their careers they have all continued to work independently and retain a strong sense of collaboration that can be directly traced back to their time together.

While in New York to attended a screening of the newly restored version of To Sleep With Anger – his first film to feature professional actors, including Danny Glover in the lead role – at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the soft-spoken Burnett discussed growing up in the Watts neighbourhood of Los Angeles, the formative period he spent at UCLA, and how that led to making films as a reaction against the traditional stereotypes portrayed in Hollywood films.

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Charles Burnett, To Sleep With Anger, 1990, film still.

Charles Burnett, To Sleep With Anger, 1990, film still

Craig Hubert  What was Los Angeles like when you were growing up there?

Charles Burnett  I grew up in the 1950s and my family came from Vicksburg, Mississippi. There was a lot of space in LA at the time, a lot of underdeveloped areas. As kids, it was adventuresome. We would go all over the place on our bikes. And, of course, at the time things were a lot cheaper. You could get a 15 cent loaf of bread, and gasoline was about 15 cents a gallon or something. A person could get an ordinary job and make a living – a living in the sense that they could afford rent and food on the table. We had a lot of people who were in the trades, who did carpentry work, brick masonry and plastering. People were working, and I think, to a large extent, enjoying it. The only thing that was problematic was the police department. They are very oppressive. The police were always harassing kids; you tried to avoid areas. The only white people we had contact with were storeowners. We didn’t go downtown often. It was really fun growing up, there were a lot of dances and things, and as a teenager you could drive all over. We had gangs, but they weren’t as violent as they became in the 1980s. Drugs were around but they weren’t as devastating, and homelessness wasn’t an issue. In fact, to see a tramp you had to go all the way downtown near the train tracks to see this mythical character, in a sense. It wasn’t someone who was a victim of society; it appeared that that was his choice. It was romanticized, freedom and the open road, all this kind of stuff. When you saw a homeless person, it was rare. But now? Forget it.

CH  Were you introduced to movies early in that environment?

CB: My mother was very much into films. We had neighbourhood theatres. You could walk about a mile and there were three theatres nearby, and all these other small theatres around. This one particular cinema, if you brought a canned good you could get in for nothing. That theatre showed old movies, a lot of serials that were very popular then. As kids, that was what we wanted to see more than anything. But when television came out, there were so many good movies a lot of studios emptied their film [libraries] onto the television market. The quality of films seemed better, but they were censored, in a way. Kids could watch films without seeing a lot of violence and nudity. It was a healthier experience than now.

CH  Was it watching films as a kid that led you to wanting to make them later?

CB  No, that didn’t happen until real, real late, until I was in my 20s actually. I wanted to be a still photographer, a photojournalist. But I never had the opportunity.

CH  Were there photojournalists you were following at the time?

CB  I used to race pigeons as a kid, when I was very, very young. I used to go to the library and look at the pigeon magazines, and order pigeons from the magazines. A pigeon – a show bird – can cost you anywhere from $50 on up. I don’t know where I got the money to get these birds. When I was looking at the pictures in those magazines, I also started looking at other photographic books. I ended up getting involved in electronics instead, but I had the inkling. Later, when I was working a temporary job at the Central Branch Library in downtown L.A., I would have time between when school ended and the job started, and downtown had all these amazing big movie palaces. I remember looking at the images on screen and thinking, that would be a nice thing to do. That’s how I ended up at UCLA studying to be a cameraman, which is where it all started.

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Charles Burnett, Killer of Sheep, 1978, film still

Charles Burnett, Killer of Sheep, 1977, film still

CH  How long did you spend at UCLA?

CB  I was there until they kicked me out. I enrolled as an undergraduate in 1967; then I stayed there for graduate school. I ended up continuing to put off my thesis because it was the only place we could get film – why leave? A bunch of us just stayed there. There was so many of us there we were blocking the enrolment. There wasn’t enough room. So they asked us, not too politely, to leave. We all had enough credits. I ended up finishing my thesis film, but was hoping to do more on their dime.

CH  What was the atmosphere like at UCLA? There seemed to be a strong sense of community, with everybody working on each other’s projects. You worked on Haile Gerima’s Bush Mama (1975) for example, as well a few shorts directed by others.

CB  I think that made us stay longer. It was a familiar kind of family partnership. One of the great things about the school was they encouraged you to work with other filmmakers, to crew on their films. You were almost obligated. It was a great time because people were really into progressive things. You could still feel the energy from the Civil Rights movement; you had the Black Panthers; the Vietnam War. There were a lot of things to get involved with, and it seemed like there was solidarity among the students. We had a lot of foreign students, a lot of kids from France, who brought a whole different experience. They had all been involved in student protests, so you felt like you were involved and engaged.

CH  Do you think of what you were making at the time as political films?

CB: We were doing two things. One, we wanted to make films that corrected the distortion that Hollywood had created. We were reacting against those kinds of films, and later the blaxploitation films that were popular and that we thought were harming the community. Then, there was a teacher named Elyseo J. Taylor who brought to the department ethno-communications and third world cinema. The third world cinema class provided a definition for who we were, and guided us to what we should be doing: making films that were political in nature but had substance, that related to what was happening in the community. At that point, the films became political as opposed to just personal.

CH  The thesis film you mentioned was Killer of Sheep. Did that come directly from those classes?

CB  Again, it was a reaction against the typical films you saw. I wanted to shoot it like a documentary, to capture what was happening without seeming to have my voice in it. I wanted there to be movement in the film without having one particular moment that pushed everything forward.

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Charles Burnett, Killer of Sheep, 1977, film still

CH  How did the making of Killer of Sheep lead to My Brother’s Wedding?

CB  Well, Killer of Sheep had some issues. People thought it was dry and humourless.

CH  Really?

CB  Yeah! There was this one instance I remember: Pearl Bowser and Oliver Franklin used to put on these tours of black independent films, and one of the places that they sent me to with Killer of Sheep was Milwaukee. The film was shown at a community centre, mostly to adults but some kids too. I was outside while the film was showing, and these kids came out about halfway through. The community centre had these blaxploitation film posters hanging up, and one of the kids pointed to one of them and said, ‘Now that’s a real film.’

CH  So My Brother’s Wedding was a response to that kind of reaction?

CB  I wanted to do something that was more accessible. So I thought of a situation that was a little bit autobiographical. I was invited to the wedding of a co-worker at an agency I was working at during that time, whom I had become friends with. Unfortunately, a friend of mine was killed in a car accident, and the wedding and the funeral happened to be on the same day at the same time. I was initially going to just go to the funeral, and tell my friend I couldn’t make the wedding. But when I was walking up to her to tell her this, she knew something was not right, and said, ‘You’re not telling me you’re not coming to my wedding!’ I didn’t know what to say, so I said, ‘Sure, yeah, I’ll be there.’ I was stressing out about it, but figured I could go to the wedding first and then just barely make it to the funeral. It didn’t work out; it was chaotic. I ended up taking that incident, and this whole idea of being a brother’s keeper, and writing a film about it. Plus I wanted to talk about the stereotypes I grew up with, the perception of the middle class and what it was like for a family from the south.

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Charles Burnett, My Brother’s Wedding, 1983, film still

CH  Even after leaving UCLA, you continued to collaborate with your former classmates. You did some editing on Julie Dash’s Illusions (1982), and following My Brother’s Wedding, you wrote the screenplay and did the cinematography for Billy Woodberry’s Bless Their Little Hearts (1984).

CB  We all helped each other; we were all pretty close friends. It was all about making the film. When Woodberry asked me to get involved, of course, there was no question. We never had any notion of making a profit off the films, or having them serve as a path to Hollywood. We just thought we would make a film, put it out there, and hope it would have an impact on the community. Maybe it would affect them socially. We would show them at community centres because those were the people we were talking about on screen. We were all just trying to get stuff out there.

CH  Were you just lending a hand when needed? Or was there a lot of dialogue about each other’s projects?

CB  We might have commented, but our purpose was to make sure this person got his or her film made – whatever we needed to do we were there to do it. We spent so many hours, night and day. It was never an issue. It was a big difference from how people worked on the East Coast, where there was more of a business structure. We always lent a hand because we knew it would be reciprocated.

CH  My Brother’s Wedding was based partly on a true story from your life, and To Sleep With Anger seems similarly autobiographical. Do you think of your films as being personal?

CB  I think you always start from things you know. With To Sleep With Anger, it came from being in a community where everybody was from the south, where they always talked about it as if it was this strange place that they both loved and hated. It was described as being spiritual but also deadly; there were lots of contradictions about it. Everybody had a story they told, and it was very engaging, especially when you’re young and don’t know anything about it.

CH  To Sleep With Anger was your first experience working with a larger budget and professional actors. Was that something you were looking for at the time?

CB  It kind of just happened. Initially with the actors I was intimidated. But it was good working with them for the first time, because you immediately see the difference. I had actors [in the past] who couldn’t make it to a shoot and asked to have somebody take their place. I said, no, it’s not like a football game where you can change quarterbacks in the middle of a play. But some non-actors are just as good as professional actors. It’s just a different way. If you’re in a hurry, a professional actor knows how to get on their mark, how to repeat things, they know about camera angels and lighting. They can do a lot of things quickly.

CH  You’ve made films in many different ways: independently, through studio financing, for television, both short and long. Have the different modes of production affected the film you ultimately made?

CB  It’s not so much the money. The story is always what appeals to me. There are things I can’t do and I’m not even going to pretend to try to do them. It’s like being an actor: you want to bring something to the part. With the choices I make in terms of the films I want to do, they always have a purpose; they always say something. It’s not always to entertain people. But it has to resonate.

Craig Hubert is a former editor at Artinfo.com and has written for publications such as T: The New York Times Style Magazine, The Atlantic, Interview Magazine, and others. He lives in New York, USA.

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