Black cinema of the ‘80s and ‘90s was dominated by young, flashy auteurs—Spike Lee, John Singleton, and the Hughes Brothers. The difference between them and the lesser-known Charles Burnett is context: Where the slogan-ready provocations of Boyz n the Hood and Do the Right Thing don’t spend any time beating around the bush (“Fight the Power,” “Increase the Peace”), Burnett provides a window into the everyday details through which to frame black struggle. In this way, Killer of Sheep (filmed in 1977 but released only this year) was a manifesto ahead of its time: Emerging from the rubble of blaxploitation, it speaks to the quiet poetry inside a Los Angeles ghetto, economically and emotionally cut off from its surroundings but determined to live.
Like Killer of Sheep, Burnett’s follow-up, My Brother’s Wedding, is a relic lost to time—mishandled by the original distributor and largely unseen by the movie-going public. A new edit shows that it doesn’t hold up as well as Burnett’s seminal debut, but its ideas are still very much timeless and necessary. Burnett tracks Pierce (Everette Silas) through his Watts neighborhood as he negotiates family life, friendship to an ex-con, and his brother’s marriage into upper-middle-class condescension. Pierce is first of all at odds with himself; thoughtful and hard-working, he clings to a romanticized view of ghetto life even as it threatens to chain him down. Burnett suggests that the deepest conflict for any black man—which is to say, for any human—is the one inside himself.
Made on an $80,000 budget raised in part by Channel 4, My Brother’s Wedding represents a major departure from Killer of Sheep in that it’s built on a fairly straightforward narrative structure. The resulting feature is an art film disguised as a melodrama; the performances are sometimes distractingly stilted and, for the most part, Burnett’s dialogue is happy to simply forward the plot. (Alas, there’s a reason the director’s name will never light up a cineplex near you.) But to dismiss the movie’s clumsiness would be to deny its overwhelming soul. Witness the quiet dramas occupying the corner of the frame: a nearly empty bottle of vodka lying below a woman’s chair; Pierce forgetting and then quickly snatching his mother’s pan from a bus stop. These are the unappreciated facts of ghetto life that Burnett stresses in order to reaffirm black existence, an Altmanesque exercise in human observation that connects one woman’s toiling in a dry cleaners to the escalating frustrations behind 1992’s L.A. riots.
The perspective of today’s black pop culture is almost singularly male. For better or worse, Spike Lee and John Singleton both trade in the same aggression of the thug culture they purport to expose. In S. Torriano Berry’s book The 50 Most Influential Black Films, Charles Burnett says black cinema needs a major female director, but in a Hollywood bent on the false theatrics of gangsta life (from Menace II Society‘s inhumanity to Get Rich or Die Tryin’‘s inanity), he may be the closest to one we ever come. His unmistakably feminine touch pays tribute to the bedrock of black family. In one scene, Pierce’s mother (Jessie Holmes), the unsung hero of the film, collapses into a dark corner of her dingy laundry service before rising up again to do her job. If Pierce’s unvoiced rage is the heartache of black America, her hope is its spirit.