Five Flix | Charles Burnett

17 01 2012

The phrase “independent filmmaker” gets thrown around and many use the art form as a way to break into mainstream films. One individual who remained true to his roots for the past 30 years is the underappreciated Charles Burnett.

Burnett cut his teeth as a student at UCLA film school for a Master of Fine Arts degree in theater arts and film in the 1960s. The experience had a life-altering affect on the filmmaker. Many of his fellow students went on to successful careers including Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust), Billy Woodbury and Haile Gerima (Sankofa).

The turbulent social events of 1967 and 1968 were vital in the establishment of the UCLA filmmaking movement that would be dubbed “the Black Independent Movement”, a movement Burnett was highly involved in and influenced by. Some of Burnett’s earlier work included his UCLA student films made with friends, Several Friends (1969) and The Horse (1973), in which he was the director, producer, and editor.

Burnett filmmaking style is generally more intimate and personal storytelling about his community, South Central L.A. His stories generally feature non-professional actors adding to his stories realism and authenticity while exploring humanity in the African-American community.

Here are my Five favorite films from the little-known autuer.

Killer of Sheep | 1977
Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders) works long hours at a slaughterhouse in Watts, Los Angeles. The monotonous slaughter affects his home life with his unnamed wife (Kaycee Moore) and two children, Stan Jr. and Angela (Jack Drummond and Burnett’s niece, Angela). Through a series of episodic events — some friends try to involve Stan in a criminal plot, a white woman propositions Stan in a store, Stan and his friend Bracy (Charles Bracy) attempt to buy a car engine — a mosaic of an austere working-class life emerges in which Stan feels unable to affect the course of his life.

Burnett’s directorial debut ,written for his Master’s thesis, took five years to complete largely because of the imprisonment of one the film’s stars. Shot in what has been described as an Italian neorealism style is a collection of brief vignettes which are so loosely connected that it feels at times like you’re watching a non-narrative film. There are no acts, plot arcs or character development, as conventionally defined. The film is now considered a classic.

To Sleep With Anger | 1990
Burnett’s first large budget movie with recognizable actors. The film stars Danny Glover as an evil presence who comes to visit his old friend from the South and brings more than what his friend, Gideon (Paul Butler) bargained for. In no time at all, Gideon suffers a mild stroke, he comes between to brothers and him and his several friends uncomfortably make themselves at home. This story and The Five Heartbeats are largely responsible for inspiring this writer to professionally review films. The film co-starred Richard Brooks, Mary Alice, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Carl Lumbly and Butler. This film along with Killer of Sheep were named national treasures by the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry.

My Brother’s Wedding | 1983
Burnett’s second full-length film and the first shot on 35mm color film, the film tells the story of an underachieving man, Pierce Mundy (Everett Silas) who struggles to choose between his brother’s middle-class existence and his best friend’s working-class world. Because of mixed reviews, the film never was theatrically released. Labeled as a tragic comedy many of the film’s actors were amateurs, best shown by his costume designer wife’s role in the movie. The movie was acquired by Milestone Films and was restored by the Pacific Film Archive at the University of California, Berkeley and digitally re-edited by Burnett. Another solid film from Burnett.

The Glass Shield | 1994
Probably, Burnett’s most recognizable film, the film tells the story of corruption and racism in the Los Angeles Police Department. His first film that catered to a wider audience, featured Ice Cube as a man wrongfully convicted of murder. Michael Boatman played the the film’s protagonist, JJ Johnson with the female officer played by Lori Petty. Burnett’s story included a strong emphasis on the powerlessness of its African American characters and of the female characters in the movie. Johnson is forced to deal with sexism both within the police department and outside on the streets. Released a couple of years after the Rodney King case, Burnett’s film tackled a subject both timely and urgent!

Selma, Lord Selma | 1999
This television movie tackles the events surrounding the Civil Rights Movement when a young girl, Sheyann Webb (Jurnee Smollett) encounters Martin Luther King, Jr. (Clifton Powell) one day while playing outside with her friends. They were told that Dr. King had come to Selma, Alabama to help the Negro people get voting rights.  Wanting to get involved, she skips school to sneak into the meetings. After one of her close friends gets killed, Sheyann and the other African American protesters marched over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in route to Montgomery as the youngest person to attempt to march. The film co-starred Yolanda King. The film received a nomination for Outstanding Television Film from The Black Reel Awards


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