Charles Burnett Profile
* Films in Bold Type Will Air on TCM
Working alongside Julie Dash, Haile Gerima, Billy Woodbury, Larry Clark, and Jamaa Faraka (then known as Walter Gordon), Burnett described the UCLA film school as an "anti-Hollywood" environment with a "kind of anarchistic flavor to it" in which there was a shared disdain for the Blaxploitation vogue of the day and a propensity toward filmmaking that was "relevant or extremely well done, original." Clyde Taylor of New York University would later label this group of radical black film contemporaries the "LA Rebellion." Some later articles called the group the "LA School." Although there was no conscious impetus among any of the filmmakers to expressly declare themselves part of a "rebellion," there was much comradery and exchange of ideas and labor between the filmmakers. Burnett was the cinematographer for Gerima's Bush Mama (1979), worked crew and camera and edited Dash's Illusions (1982) and was the screenwriter and cinematographer for Woodbury's Bless Their Little Hearts (1984).
Burnett and his contemporaries took their time at UCLA, staying in the program as long as they could, taking advantage of the free film equipment and making film after film. Burnett made a number of seminal films at this time, the most notable of course being his thesis film, his first feature, Killer of Sheep. The precursor to Killer of Sheep was Several Friends (1969), which was originally planned as a feature but ended up a short. The film was a series of loose, documentary-style vignettes sketching the lives of a handful of characters, mostly played by amateurs (Burnett's friends) living in Watts. Much of the film's theme and aesthetic (even some of its actors) ended up in Killer of Sheep. Several Friends will be distributed by Milestone in 2007 as part of a special Charles Burnett DVD box set along with another student short The Horse (1973), the critically acclaimed short When It Rains (1995) and the director's cut of Burnett's second feature, a long-neglected landmark of independent cinema, My Brother's Wedding (1984).
My Brother's Wedding began production in 1983. Burnett wrote, directed and produced this low budget independent film that examines the family connections and personal obligations facing Pierce, a young man trying to keep his best friend from going back to jail while dealing with his older brother's approaching marriage into a bourgeois black family. My Brother's Wedding uses both comedy and tragedy to explore the way that class figures into the American black experience. Burnett submitted a rough cut of the film to its producers, who against his wishes, accepted it as the final cut. The unfinished film was shown at the New Directors/New Films festival to mixed reviews, discouraging distributors and tragically relegating the film to relative obscurity.
In 1990, Burnett wrote and directed the haunting family drama, To Sleep With Anger. Danny Glover, parlaying his recent stardom from Lethal Weapon to get funding, co-produced and starred in this critically lauded film as the charming but mildly supernatural Southern family friend, Harry. Harry insinuates himself into a troubled family, forcing inner turmoil to the surface. Burnett received acclaim in America and abroad for the film. In 1991, it won Independent Spirit Awards for Best Director and Best Screenplay for Burnett and Best Actor for Glover. The Library of Congress later selected this film (in addition to Killer of Sheep) for its prestigious National Film Registry. The National Society of Film Critics honored Burnett for best screenplay for To Sleep With Anger, making him the first African American to win in this category in the group's 25-year history. While the Los Angeles Times reported that Burnett's movie reminded viewers of Anton Chekov, Time magazine wrote: "If Spike Lee's films are the equivalent of rap music - urgent, explosive, profane, then Burnett's movie is good, old urban blues." The film also received a Special Jury Recognition Award at the 1990 Sundance Film Festival and a Special Award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. Both Burnett and Glover were nominated for New York Film Critics Circle Awards. Burnett's next film, The Glass Shield, (starring Lori Petty, Michael Boatman and Ice Cube) was a police drama based on a true story of corruption and racism within the Los Angeles police force. While the film went over well with critics, it was not a commercial success. Terrence Rafferty explains: "[The Glass Shield is] a thoughtful, lucid moral drama with a deeply conflicted hero and no gunplay whatsoever. Mirimax's fabled marketing department tried to sell it as a hood movie, dumping it in a few urban theaters with the support of miniscule ads whose most prominent feature was the glowering face of Ice Cube (who has a small role in the picture)."
After this was Burnett's short, When It Rains, which was chosen as one of the ten best films of 1990s by the Chicago Reader's Jonathan Rosenbaum. Rosenbaum went on to choose Killer of Sheep and To Sleep with Anger as two of the Top 100 American Films as Alternate to the American Film Institute Top 100. Burnett made his television debut with his acclaimed 1996 Disney Channel film, Nightjohn. Based on the novel by Gary Paulsen, Nightjohn is a period piece about a slave's risky attempt to teach an orphaned slave girl to read and write. New Yorker film critic Terrence Rafferty called Nightjohn the "best American movie of 1996." The TV film received a 1997 Special Citation Award from the National Society of Film Critics "for a film whose exceptional quality and origin challenge strictures of the movie marketplace."
Burnett's work also includes the 1998 ABC two-part mini-series Oprah Winfrey Presents: The Wedding, starring Halle Barry and Lynn Whitfield; the 1999 ABC telepic, Selma, Lord, Selma, about the 1965 civil rights marches in Alabama and the infamous "Bloody Sunday;" and the 1991 documentary about U.S. immigration, America Becoming.
In 1997, the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival honored Burnett with a retrospective, Witnessing For Everyday Heroes, presented at New York's Walter Reade Theater of Lincoln Center. Burnett has been awarded grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the J. P. Getty Foundation, as well as a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship (a.k.a. "the genius grant"). Burnett is also the winner of the American Film Institute's Maya Deren Award, and one of the very few people ever to be honored with Howard University's Paul Robeson Award for achievement in cinema. The Chicago Tribune has called him "one of America's very best filmmakers" and the New York Times named him "the nation's least-known great filmmaker and most gifted black director." Burnett has even had a day named after him - in 1997, the mayor of Seattle declared February 20 to be Charles Burnett Day. Burnett recently directed a documentary on Nat Turner and one chapter of the six-part documentary, The Blues, a production of Martin Scorsese's CPA Productions with Off-Line Entertainment.
Charles Burnett lives west of Watts with his wife, costume designer Gaye Burnett. They have two sons. His newest film, Nujoma: Where Others Wavered, a biopic of the first Namibian president Sam Nujoma, is now in post-production.