Who would deny that the revival of Charles Burnett’s career has been the major film event of the year? Though his 1977 debut feature, Killer of Sheep, had already managed to enter the canon without ever having enjoyed a theatrical release, Milestone Films’ pristine 35mm print still came as a revelation when it arrived this past spring. It wasn’t just that it proved to be every bit the equal of the Italian neorealist classics to which it has often been compared, but that it also served as a potential wake-up call to its audience, even the most conscientious of whom may have forgotten how scarce depictions of the urban black community still are in American film. As a film student at UCLA in the ’70s, Burnett began addressing the social need of his time by responding to blaxploitation’s fashionable views of criminality, seeking to provide a balance in American cinema’s images of the ghetto. That Killer of Sheep remains essential for the void it fills makes it no less of an artistic triumph. Foregoing the emotional extremes of most politically motivated cinema, Burnett built his first masterpiece out of slices of life in which joy and pain are indistinguishable. With its lyricism and tonal restraint, it remains one of the starkest visions of American society and its deferral of dreams. But what makes it indispensable is its avoidance of the shallow pity that so often sentimentalizes social realism.
The release of Burnett’s 1983 follow-up, My Brother’s Wedding, in a new director’s cut made possible by his increasingly public prestige, shows us how deep his humanist perspective goes, yielding more evidence of the subtlety and patience with which this filmmaker explores one of the great subjects of his career: the problem of dignity among a demoralized underclass. Set in South Central Los Angeles, the film chronicles the growing pains of Pierce (Everett Silas), a young man trying to reconcile his responsibility to his family with his sense of duty to a friend who has just been released from prison. Working in his family’s dry cleaning service, he feels trapped by his lack of direction and options, even as he resents his brother for being an upwardly mobile lawyer with an upper-middle-class fiancée. The film climaxes when Pierce is forced to make a choice that will test his loyalty to both parties. But while the plot ultimately comes to revolve around Pierce and his decision-making, this ambiguous protagonist spends much of his time in the movie floating around as more of a lost soul than a real man.
As in Killer of Sheep, the mess of life leaks in from the margins of the story, overwhelming individual characterizations. Burnett gives precedence to vignettes over the manipulations of plot, lingering on comic details such as a boy making fart noises out of boredom, or a girl who repeatedly asks Pierce to take her to the prom. My Brother’s Wedding serves as a powerful companion to its predecessor, as it evokes the comfortable familiarity its characters feel toward their milieu, as well as the sense of aimlessness that threatens to trap them there forever. Extending the effects of his use of nonprofessional actors and improvisation, Burnett adds a thick layer of artifice to the poetic naturalism found in Killer of Sheep by keeping the acting amateurish. Much less reliant on music as a counterpoint to action, this film sometimes has the eerie mood of a vacuum; whereas the characters in Killer of Sheep were accompanied in their desperation by the yearning voices of Paul Robeson and Dinah Washington, the world depicted in My Brother’s Wedding seems completely devoid of the urgency to strive. Unlike Sheep’s emotionally mysterious hero, Stan, Pierce lacks a strong charisma or the will to adopt a consistent set of principles. But in case audiences emerged from the earlier film convinced that the trials of ghetto life were what endowed Stan with his backbone, Burnett replies by identifying Pierce’s tragic flaw as a “romanticized view of the have-nots.” Poverty, the film explains, makes no one any wiser or nobler. Burnett gets tough on his hero toward the end of the film because he realizes, as many artists never do, that the sanctification of suffering is among the worst sins a social realist can commit.
For its critique of the notion that criminality equals cultural authenticity, and its engagement with the anxiety that upward mobility dilutes culture, My Brother’s Wedding is as relevant today as Killer of Sheep. Just as the youngest son in Burnett’s To Sleep with Anger is torn between a life of sin and a life of responsibility, and just as the slaves in Nightjohn are forced to decide between the chains of illiteracy and the freedom of knowledge, so Pierce is stalled from any growth or progress by his limited sense of what does and does not constitute blackness, and even his basic goodness won’t save him from being left as the one solitary figure at the end. As he stumbles through the film without an identity or ambition, the haunting opening lines of Killer of Sheep echo back to us: “You’re not a child anymore. You’ll soon be a goddamn man. Start learning what life is about now.”
The new wave of exposure Burnett is enjoying won’t make his oeuvre very much easier to package. The best of his wide-ranging résumé includes his daringly poetic first films; the novelistic To Sleep with Anger; “When it Rains,” a jazz-themed short film made for French television, and Nightjohn, a juvenile-lit adaptation for the Disney Channel. Though his key works can be viewed as variations on a cluster of thematic concerns, the diversity of their sources and styles makes it less easy to identify the auteurist thread that ties them all together, especially since they do not flaunt the kind of definable persona or visual stamp that always threatens to turn major talents like Spike Lee into caricatures. Marketing Burnett as a darling of the art-film world, some have taken to calling him a black Jean Renoir or Satyajit Ray, but analogies to these humanist touchstones are helpful only up to a point, since they fail to account for Burnett’s disarming use of humor, his instinctive sense of music’s relationship to image, and the influences of black art and culture on his formal sensibilities. The films invite comparison to the most high-art of foreign auteurs partly because they do not fit comfortably in the domain of the American independent, certainly not when placed alongside the undisciplined aesthetics and self-satisfied quirkiness of the scene’s younger generation. Burnett’s movies are, however, reminiscent of a time that began at least a decade before Killer of Sheep was made, when the spirit of independent film found its embodiment in the wandering, improvisatory style of John Cassavetes. While Killer of Sheep and My Brother’s Wedding possess a temperament that suggests the exact opposite of the high-pitched hysteria in Faces and A Woman Under the Influence, Burnett’s films represent similar challenges for the audience in the amount and type of attention they require; the unpredictability of their jagged rhythms; and the complexity and amorphousness of their emotions.
In the attempt to sell Burnett as a figure of both aesthetic and cultural importance, the most interesting result might be the way much of the critical press has agreed upon a single convenient soundbyte, habitually referring to him as America’s “most gifted black director.” Such quotable acclaim suppresses the questions we must ask about why African-American voices continue to be so underrepresented and misrepresented in our movies. So far, partly due to a lack of access to his films (a problem that will soon be solved by Milestone’s upcoming DVD anthology), the most vocal part of Burnett’s fanbase consists of white cinephiles, which may be why a considerable amount of criticism has emphasized his affinities to European filmmaking instead of his debt to black culture. But the impulse to understand Burnett within the framework of African-American art is a necessary one, particularly as it shifts the focus away from his obvious but ultimately limited connection to the neorealists.
To appreciate Burnett from a racial and cultural angle is to at some point position him in dialectical opposition to the younger Spike Lee, who holds claim to the title of “most gifted black director” among the mainstream audience. Such a contrast can be both horribly reductive and surprisingly illuminating: when considered in dialogue with Lee’s films, Burnett’s work calls to mind the longstanding ideological debates that once placed the late-’30s duel between Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright at the center of black aesthetics, ethics, and politics. Both Burnett and Lee are committed to very personal ideas about what constitutes a realistic, authentic portrayal of black life. But, like Wright, Lee’s highly topical films take on the form of sharp social critique and protest that includes and implicates the white audience; his style takes the philosophy underlying Wright’s political novels and expands it to embrace the values of the Black Arts movement and the passion of socially conscious black pop. On the other hand, Burnett, like Hurston, often lays his ethnographic eye on the daily routines and relationships within insular black communities, leaving the sources of oppression unnamed and invisible. His visual palette is beautiful but subdued, evoking the rootsy sparseness of a blues record. But although Burnett and Lee can be interpreted as manifestations of two different ideas about what a black artist should be, one of the many dangers of this binary lies in the temptation to ignore Burnett’s political aims simply because he courts less controversy, and because his films are likely to invoke more of our sadness than our outrage.
None of Burnett’s greatest films consider very deeply the moral responsibilities or accountability of their white characters. There is a refreshing cultural privacy he establishes in films such as Nightjohn (with its scenes of a slave community after-hours) and When It Rains (in which jazz becomes a form of currency by which a black woman is saved from eviction) that allows him to pose the same questions again and again: What do dignity and morality mean for a black person in an unjust society? How much of the pain of oppression becomes the joy of overcoming? How much control does a black person have over his or her own life, his or her own moral choices? Burnett presents these questions in ways we have never heard them asked before—in the poet’s voice of sorrow and confusion rather than the preacher’s holler of righteous conviction. With the theatrical release of Killer of Sheep and My Brother’s Wedding this year, he has changed the face not just of cinema but of identity.
Andrew Chan is a poet and film critic currently studying at UNC-Chapel Hill. He is the creator of the blog Movie Love.