It took a little while, but Charles Burnett is finally enjoying a crossover moment of sorts. With accolades strewn like rose petals before last year's release of Burnett's debut feature “Killer of Sheep” (1977), in its first theatrical run 30 years after completion, the African-American filmmaker, now in his early 60s, seems at last poised to gain an audience equal to his critical esteem and artistic caliber.
Sharing in the current rediscovery, Anthology brightens our February nights with a week-long Burnett retrospective counting five features, from “Killer of Sheep” to “Warming By the Devil's Fire” (2003), commissioned for a PBS series on the blues, the hour-long “Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property” (2003), and three shorts. Burnett won't be around to charm viewers in person (as Apichatpong Weerasethakul recently did at Anthology), but his mature wit, compassion, insight, and devotion to craft irradiate every work.
THE FILMS OF CHARLES BURNETT
Through Feb. 14
BLESS THEIR LITTLE HEARTS
Directed by Billy Woodberry
Anthology Film Archives
32 Second Ave., at Second St.
Indeed, Burnett's inviting touch – try some tenderness, he always asks – may be the most unifying element threading a disparate, even motley, career in independent film, more than three decades marked by interruptions, waits between films, the perpetual scrounge for funds, an olio of production deals and circumstances, and botched marketing of those few works to open theatrically, like the 1990 feature “To Sleep With Anger.”
Anthology retrospective joins in rediscovery of Charles Burnett.
Yet such measures reflect a scale of values in some ways incidental to Burnett's purpose, so thoroughly liberated in spirit and gesture even when contracted to a behemoth like Disney for the feature “Nightjohn” (1996), left out of the series. Due partly to a type of innocence – as a black American of working-class origins, Burnett has said he never imagined, when embarking in film, that Hollywood held a place for him – and partly to principle, he has lived and worked all his life in Los Angeles while remaining immune to lotusland's deranging vapors.
Although pursued through popular forms in popular media like TV and cinema, Burnett's work exemplifies what bell hooks once described as “choosing the margin as a site of resistance.”
Several critics have pointed to Italian neorealism as precedent for “Killer of Sheep,” but a more useful interpretive field for approaching Burnett may be the insurgent Third Cinema of the postcolonial global South, not least because of his formative grounding in this context; at UCLA in the mid-'70s, he helped coordinate the Third World Film Club, bringing Cuban and Brazilian films to the urban campus while “Killer of Sheep” inched toward completion.
Apparent in other classics of the “LA Rebellion,” as Clyde Taylor called Burnett's UCLA-trained cohort, the Third Cinema influence – more militant in Haile Gerima's “Bush Mama” (1976), more formally brazen in Larry Clark's “Passing Through” (1977) – adheres in Burnett's work as a decolonized authorial consciousness, a critical vantage that some of the characters in his fictions may share to degrees, yet more often is out of reach. Burnett's films feel uniquely different, in part because he rejects, or effectively subverts, the prevailing models for depicting black folks honed by the nine decades of American narrative cinema, made preponderantly by and for whites, that followed “Birth of a Nation.”
As a consequence, Burnett can deflate popular audience expectations for a black film. But viewers who surrender to Burnett's unhurried pacing and stop-time figures, his unsparing character studies conceived from and animated with love, his ingenious narrative designs and lucid pictorialism, and his shrewd deployment of black American musical idioms, soon come to cherish his gifts.
There's not much to add to the heavenly host that hymned last year's belated opening of “Killer of Sheep.” Maybe it's enough to say that the film, gorgeous in the new 35mm print struck from 16mm source elements, nearly exceeds praise. With each viewing the complex weave of sound, especially music tracks, against monochrome image casts its spell, and the film's way of seeming to make itself up spontaneously, in a chain of discrete yet subtly fused episodes of hard-pressed black life in early-'70s Watts, while proving impossible, on reflection, to imagine in any other configuration, is a structural marvel.
“Killer of Sheep” may be Burnett's official masterpiece, but I remain partial to the middle-period summit “To Sleep With Anger,” which extends the psychogeography of its black subjects from contemporary Los Angeles back to the old South, before the Great Migration. A comfortably middle-class family with their share of worries and joys, presided over by grandparents Gideon (Paul Butler) and Suzie (Mary Alice), is surprised, then sundered, by the impromptu arrival and overlong visit of Gideon's pal from down home, Harry Mention (Danny Glover).
Fixing his pallet on the pantry floor just off the kitchen, Harry – his name recalling Daddy Mention of lore, his carriage and speech filled with the sly servility of black life under Jim Crow – discerns all the latent doubts and antagonisms among the family's three generations, and stokes them to an almost fatal pitch. This shade of the past is finally exorcised by Suzie and Gideon's quiet grandchild Sunny (Devaughn Walter Nixon), who knew enough to brush Harry's shoes with a broom from the start, and the plot that grips like a domestic thriller – wait for Harry to loom out of the sleeping house's shadows in red taillight gleam – ends as a comedy, one whose crowning note of redemption feels wholly earned and genuine.
Since seeing “To Sleep With Anger” in first run, I've caught the odd revival, but needed to refresh with a video for this notice. When I checked a VHS copy out from a local library, handing the cassette to a security guard while I stepped through the magnetic gate, he looked at the box and, breaking a huge smile, said, “Oh, this is a very good movie!” I told him I couldn't agree more.
In coda, Anthology presents eight screenings of the scarce feature “Bless Their Little Hearts” (1984) over the weekend of February 15-17. Written and photographed by Burnett, and directed by his LA Rebellion compeer Billy Woodberry, “Bless” shares with “Killer” the excellent Kaycee Moore, married here to a jobless husband and struggling harder than ever to meet each morning in the ghetto.