With his measured and tranquil way of speaking, Burnett projects the image, at first glance, of a man who transmits calm. He is a great conversationalist, a grand storyteller when he has the floor, but also an attentive and curious listener when the moment comes to cede it. Seeing his films, one can tell that he is an expert chronicler in his daily life, and speaking with him only confirms this. (…) His first feature, Killer of Sheep (1977), is not just any film. Carried out as a university capstone project, it is much more, both for how it is made and for what it represents in the history of cinema in the United States. Postponing his graduation to continue to have access to the university’s materials, Burnett filmed it on the weekends over several months during the mid-1970s. The actors are not professionals, but rather people from the neighborhood who decide to act out alter egos of themselves. With a style similar to that of Several Friends (1969), Burnett takes personal stories he has lived and heard in Watts and composes a portrait of great simplicity and beauty.
The black-and-white photography, with the camera in the director’s own hands, transmits a studied barrenness, with an anguish augmented by the blues and jazz themes he chose for the soundtrack, above all in the heartrending scene in which the protagonists dance to the rhythm of Dinah Washington’s “The Bitter Earth.” (…) “Don’t take advantage of your characters,” his professor Basil Wright used to repeat to him, and this is a maxim that he has applied in all of his films from Killer of Sheep onward, showing great respect for his subjects and actors, and always treating them with dignity. (…) [In My Brother’s Wedding (1983)] he criticizes the prejudices of people who have risen quickly against those who, with a similar logic (distrust and envy), disparage them as snobs. Through a very different film, the director traces another pertinent portrait of a social sort, to which he will return, to a certain degree, with a later picture done in a similar spirit, When It Rains (1995). (…) [To Sleep With Anger (1990)] is a classic family drama with folkloric and fantasy elements from the southern black tradition, would be his first great success in the United States. It received Special Jury Recognition at the Sundance festival, headed the year’s best lists for many associations of American critics, and took four Spirit awards, with two of the statues going to Burnett, for best screenplay and best director, and one each for the actors Danny Glover and Sheryl Lee Ralph. (…) Though heterogeneous, the whole of Burnett’s work, including a number of later titles not listed here (…) can be read as a journey through the history of blackness in the United States.
Excerpt from Charles Burnett. A Troublesome Filmmaker. Play-Doc Books 2016
KILLER OF SHEEP
Sound: Charles Bracy
Cast: Henry Gayle Sanders, Kaycee Moore, Charles Bracy, Angela Burnett, Eugene Cherry, Jack Drummond
Music: Etta James, Dinah Washington, Paul Robeson, Little Walter, Earth, Wind & Fire.
Killer of Sheep examines the black Los Angeles ghetto of Watts in the mid-1970s through the eyes of Stan, a sensitive dreamer who is growing detached and numb from the psychic toll of working at a slaughterhouse. Frustrated by money problems, he finds respite in moments of simple beauty: the warmth of a teacup against his cheek, slow dancing with his wife, holding his daughter. The film offers no solutions; it merely presents life — sometimes hauntingly bleak, sometimes filled with transcendent joy and gentle humor.
MY BROTHER’S WEDDING
Producers: Gaye Shannon-Burnett, Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen, Brigitte Kramer, Thomas M. Penick
Editor: Thomas M. Penick
Sound: Veda Campbell, Arthur J. Lopez
Cast: Everette Silas, Jessie Holmes, Gaye Shannon-Burnett, Ronald E. Bell, Dennis Kemper, Sally Easter, Hobert Durham Jr, Angela Burnett, Tim Wright, Cora Lee Day
Music: Dr. Henry Gordon, John Briggs Consort, Johnny Ace, Stephen Jay.
In this tragicomic work of realism, Pierce Mundy is employed at his parents’ South Central dry cleaners with no prospects for the future — his childhood buddies are all in prison or dead. Pierce’s best friend Soldier is just getting out of jail. Pierce’s brother Wendell, an up-and-coming lawyer, is busy planning a wedding to a snooty upper-middle-class black woman named Sonia. Pierce navigates his conflicting obligations and his mistrust of the upper crust while trying to figure out what he really wants.
TO SLEEP WITH ANGER
Executive Producer: Danny Glover
Producers: Caldecot Chubb, Thomas S. Byrnes, Darin Scott.
Cinematography: Danny Glover, Walter Lloyd
Editing: Nancy Richardson
Cast: Danny Glover, Paul Butler, DeVaughn Nixon, Vonetta McGee, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Carl Lumbly
Music: Stephen James Taylor, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Bobby Bland, Little Milton Campbell, Jimmy Witherspoon, Ethel Ayler, Z. Z. Hill
Featuring a highly accomplished ensemble cast headed by the film’s executive producer, actor Danny Glover, To Sleep With Anger concerns a transplanted African American family’s metaphorical and metaphysical tug-of-war between their comfortable life in Los Angeles and the age-old superstitions and cultural traditions native to their former home in the South. The catalyst for this mortal conflict is a beloved family friend from back home, Harry Mention (Danny Glover), a “trickster” who arrives unexpectedly with a twinkle in his eye and a soul-rooted connection to the more sinister aspects of Southern folklore. As Harry’s initially charming, but ultimately devilish, conjuring gradually infiltrates three generations of the family unit, deep-seated fractures in their interrelationships are forced to confrontation.
WHEN IT RAINS
Producers: Chantal Bernheim
Cast: Ayuko Babu, Kenny Merritt, Charles Bracy, Soul, R. Ray Barness.
Music: Stephen James Taylor
A dreadlocked, dashiki-clad man (Ayuko Babu) roams his community on New Year’s Day trying to drum up help for a female friend whose overdue rent could land her daughter and herself on the street. The protagonist’s voiceover narration free-ranges from personal backstories to musing on the relationship between blues and jazz.