Filmmaker Charles Burnett brings himself and five of his films to Charlotte this weekend. Mr. Burnett has dared to make films that serve as social commentary and promise to take the viewer from one end of the Black consciousness spectrum to the other. Film has long been a medium of relaying messages that call the viewer to think critically and then act. I think Burnett's films do exactly that. But hey, don't take my word for it. Come on out and see for yourself. Note details below.
To Your Journey!
Ahmad Daniels, Creative Interchange
3-DAY FILM RETROSPECTIVE
Charlotte turns spotlight on director
LAWRENCE TOPPMAN, Charlotte Observer, Aug. 20, 2007
Odds are, you don't know Charles Burnett.
The Library of Congress does: It preserved his 1977 "Killer of Sheep" as a "national treasure."
The Guggenheim Foundation, National Endowment of the Arts and Rockefeller Foundation all do: He's gotten filmmaking dough from The Big Three.
The MacArthur Foundation handed him a "genius grant" of $275,000 over five years, so he could pay bills while establishing himself as the leading independent black director of his time.
Now it's Charlotte's turn to meet him. The Light Factory, NoDa Film Festival and Reel Soul will host screenings and Q-and-A's, as "Charles Burnett: A Retrospective" runs Friday through Sunday all over the city.
The 63-year-old Burnett has never had a commercial hit. Yet the restored "Killer of Sheep" is now getting a theatrical run in big cities, the newly edited "His Brother's Wedding" is about to open in New York and Los Angeles -- after its Charlotte screening -- and Burnett has just finished a drama about Namibian independence that needs a distributor.
"It's strange," he says quietly. "People know about you and give you respect. They let you come into the office, but they do other things while they talk to you. Or they'll look very serious but say `We pass' when you're done.
"They ask, `Can you speak to this generation?' They figure older people aren't listening. Older people, who don't rush out to see a film the first weekend, desperately want (thoughtful) movies. But there's nothing for them."
The NoDa festival's Jeff Jackson, who first pushed to bring Burnett, calls him "the least well-known great American filmmaker. The nuances of his characters, the issues he talks about -- race, social justice -- he makes those complex and artful and entertaining. His films aren't like eating your vegetables: They're warm and funny and humane."
The Light Factory's Wendy Fishman and Reel Soul's Dennis Darrell ran with Jackson's idea.
Fishman sought venues and funds, and the Foundation of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the Oscar folks) obliged with $6,000, its first grant to the Charlotte region. Darrell talked up the event in the black community and supplied his list of moviegoers, most of them African American professionals who'd form a core audience for Burnett's work.
The shy Mississippi native should feel at home here. He considers himself part Southerner, though his family left Vicksburg for the economically diverse Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles in the 1940s.
"Everyone in my neighborhood was from the South," he says. "There were a lot of values and folkways you had to tend to. It was sort of a conflict situation: My mother hated it and said she'd never go back, but my grandmother really wanted to go back and had family there.
"When anyone came in from the South, there was a sharing of news: who died, what happened to Miss So-and-so. My uncle was a preacher, so there was talk about church members. It became like a myth, stories of people you wished you'd known."
Burnett vowed to tell those stories when he entered UCLA's film school, after studying electronics at Los Angeles Community College. UCLA wanted people of color; classmates included future directors Julie Dash and Haile Gerima. But in Hollywood, black directors were being asked to do "Shaft" and "Superfly."
"We were concerned about making narratives that represented the black experience," he says of his class. "None of us had a clue about finding work. I never thought I'd go to Hollywood to make features; I thought I'd make small films, get them into the community, and have another job to support myself."
He nearly had to quit his craft a decade later. The MacArthur grant came in 1988, when he was "at rock bottom. I didn't know what I was going to do: scruff around, get a job at McDonald's. I'd been to the unemployment office and been told, `You have to show us you're going to look for a real job.' It's hard to be poor in this country. I can see how it's easy to become homeless."
Luckily, Burnett plugged on. He made "To Sleep With Anger," his best-known picture, in 1990, with Danny Glover as a rural Southerner disrupting the lives of blacks who've relocated to Los Angeles. He then carved out a dozen more films, many for TV, without having to stand in the unemployment line again.
He's worried about finding a home for "Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation." It's 161 minutes, it's an educational piece about that country's independence in the 1960s, it has no famous actors, and "we don't know how it's going to affect audiences. The mood of the country is very patriotic, and lots of things the U.S. did (there) put us in a bad light."
Burnett won't let go of controversy: He's preparing "Red Soil," a drama about forced child labor in the cocoa fields of West Africa. He'll talk about these socially responsible films when he meets local students Saturday at the Afro-American Cultural Center.
"A lot of people look at film as entertainment only," he says. "Making Hollywood movies is OK, but I like it when people tell their own stories. I want to explain how to do that with cameras and editing systems people can get together and afford.
"In Namibia, there's a tribalism where the dominant class monopolizes everything, so people in the underclass need to help one another by telling their own stories. If I can get that across in Charlotte, (that idea of) helping the community, I'll be happy."
Charles Burnett Retrospective
Friday: 8 p.m., the local premiere of "Killer of Sheep," Phillips Place Cinemas, Fairview Road between Colony and Sharon, $12. A father in 1970s Watts tries to hold his family together, despite a dehumanizing job in a slaughterhouse, financial troubles and disassociation from the people around him.
Saturday: 1 p.m., "Nightjohn," Afro-American Cultural Center, Myers and Seventh streets, $8 for adults and $5. for students. A 12-year-old girl in the antebellum South is taught to read and write by a runaway slave, an act that has consequences for everyone on the plantation. 3 p.m., student forum with Burnett, Afro-American Cultural Center, free to students.
8 p.m., "To Sleep With Anger," Spirit Square, 345 N. College St., $10. Danny Glover plays a Southern trickster who moves in with a prospering family in Los Angeles, reminding them of their roots in ways that sew discord everywhere.
Sunday: 2 p.m., the local premiere of "My Brother's Wedding," Neighborhood Theatre, 511 E. 36th Street, $5. A Los Angeles man, who seems to be devoted to others at the expense of his own needs, must decide whether to attend his best friend's funeral or the wedding of his upwardly mobile brother.
5 p.m., "The Glass Shield," Neighborhood Theatre, $5. Michael Boatman plays a rookie and the first black member of the L.A. sheriff's department, where he finds endemic racism and sexism.
To buy tickets, go to www.lightfactory.org or www.godfatherofblackcinema.org or call 704-333-9755.