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Burnett, Charles

Charles Burnett

1944—

Film director, producer

Since the late 1960s, Charles Burnett has been making highly acclaimed films about the experience of African Americans. Burnett's films have been shown at festivals throughout the world and have received several prestigious awards; still, most American moviegoers have never seen his films or heard of him. According to Bernard Weinraub of the New York Times, many critics refer to Burnett as "the nation's least-known great filmmaker" and "the most gifted black director." Despite the fact that Burnett has completed relatively few projects, he is extremely well respected in the arts community. His films Killer of Sheep (1977) and To Sleep with Anger (1990) have been designated as national treasures by the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. Burnett has received grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, and J. P. Getty Foundation, and he was awarded a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Grant in 1988.

Became Interested in Storytelling Early On

Charles Burnett was born in 1944 in Vicksburg, Mississippi; his father was in the military and his mother was a nurse's aide. When Burnett was three, the family moved to Los Angeles, settling in the predominantly black neighborhood of Watts. A short time afterward, Burnett's parents separated, and he and his brother were raised by their grandmother.

In the years after World War II, many African Americans, like the Burnetts, had moved from the rural South to large northern cities. As a result, the Los Angeles community where he grew up was "Southern in culture," Burnett told the Washington Post. Burnett's upbringing had a strong influence on his films, which often combine southern folklore with contemporary themes. "A lot of traditions were carried on, and storytelling was one," Burnett was quoted as saying in the Washington Post. "I think it's important to have your own stories. It's important for kids to model themselves after—to have images of … what's right and wrong."

While many of Burnett's films stress the importance of community, as a child he often felt excluded because he stuttered when he spoke. Burnett has speculated that his stutter may have contributed to his desire to become an artist. "[M]aybe because I have a serious speech impediment, I always felt like an outsider—an observer—who wasn't able to participate because I couldn't speak very well," he told Bernice Reynaud of the Black American Literature Forum. "So this inability to communicate must have led me in a certain direction—to try to find some other means to express myself and my concerns."

Studied Film in College

As a young man, Burnett did not find much support for his artistic ambitions. "I was always interested in [the] arts," Burnett told the Washington Post. "But my community wasn't interested in [the] arts. You had to do something concrete, you had to make a living." Burnett initially tried to live up to these expectations by enrolling at Los Angeles Community College to study electronics. However, at one point he took a course in creative writing and realized that he wanted to become an artist of some kind. In 1965 he left the community college and enrolled in the film program at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where he earned a bachelor's degree and then a master's degree.

As a student at UCLA, Burnett met and worked with other African-American film students such as Haile Gerima, Julie Dash, Jamaa Faraka, and Billy Woodbury. Years later, this group of filmmakers came to be called the "L.A. Rebellion," a term Burnett disliked. He told Reynaud, "It wasn't a ‘school’ of black filmmakers, or a conscious effort."

At the time, independent films—and particularly those made by African Americans—had very little chance of being picked up for distribution. As a result, Burnett and his fellow students were freed from any pressure to be commercial. "We were convinced that there wasn't any outlet for our work," Burnett explained to Reynaud. "So we had a chance to indulge a little bit and be creative and say what we wanted."

Won Acclaim for Killer of Sheep

For his master's thesis, Burnett wrote and directed Killer of Sheep, which would later earn him international acclaim. Set in Watts, Killer of Sheep is a stark family drama about an unemployed slaughterhouse worker who tries to remain a good husband and father. The project took five years to complete—mostly because Burnett had promised a role to a friend who was serving time in prison and continually failed to make parole. The black-and-white film, which was made for less than $10,000, was finally completed in 1974, but was not released until 1977, when the film hit the festival circuit.

Burnett initially received recognition as a filmmaker in Europe, particularly after Killer of Sheep won the Critics' Prize at the 1981 Berlin Film Festival. While Burnett appreciated the critical acclaim—"It gave me the sense that the films I had made were real films," he told Reynaud—it was painful to be ignored in his own country. "For a black person, who is already aware of the fact that he or she is an outsider [in his or her own country], it is a doubly frustrating situation."

Tony Gittens, the director of the Black Film Institute at the University of the District of Columbia, told the Washington Post that Killer of Sheep was "a brilliant work. As film-as-art, it was just wonderful, but it also captured an authenticity of his community." Years later, in 1990, Killer of Sheep would be among the fifty films designated as national treasures by the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress—along with well-known movies such as Citizen Kane (1941) and The Godfather (1972).

At a Glance …

Born Charles Burnett on April 13, 1944, in Vicksburg, MS; father in the military and mother a nurse's aide, raised by grandmother; married Gaye Shannon-Burnett; children: Steven and Jonathan. Education: University of California, Los Angeles, BA and MFA in film.

Career: Filmmaker, writer, director, and cinematographer on short films, independent features, documentaries, and movies made for television.

Awards: University of California, Los Angeles, Louis B. Mayer Award; Berlin Film Festival, Critics' Prize for Killer of Sheep, 1981; John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Grant, 1988; Sundance Film Festival, Special Jury Prize for To Sleep with Anger, 1990; grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the J. P. Getty Foundation; Killer of Sheep and To Sleep with Anger designated as national treasures by the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress; Howard University Paul Robeson Award for Accomplishment in Film.

Addresses: Office—c/o Miramax Films, 375 Greenwich St., Fourth Floor, New York, NY 10013.

Became an Icon of Independent Filmmaking

Burnett's next film, My Brother's Wedding—his first feature to be shot on 35mm film stock—was a comedy-drama, which told the story of a young black man torn between self-destructive street life and pretentious upward mobility. Like Killer of Sheep, My Brother's Wedding was done on a shoestring budget and featured nonprofessional actors, including Burnett's wife, Gaye Shannon-Burnett, a costume designer. There were problems with finances and with one of Burnett's amateur actors, which caused serious delays in the filming. Ultimately, the film was released to the festival circuit in 1983, in an unfinished form, at the insistence of the German studio that financed the project. Still, the film managed to impress some critics. "Despite its rough edges, this is an impressive effort," Clifford Terry of the Chicago Tribune wrote in his review. Distributors were less impressed, and My Brother's Wedding, like Killer of Sheep, was not released commercially.

Despite the accolades that he'd earned, Burnett struggled to find work and make ends meet. While applying for grants to make his films, he worked as a script reader and messenger for a Los Angeles talent agency, wrote screenplays and did cinematography for friends' films, and even painted houses or mowed lawns when necessary.

In 1988 Burnett was awarded a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Grant, commonly known as a genius grant. The grant—$275,000 paid over five years, with no strings attached—is intended to free gifted individuals to pursue their own projects. When Burnett told the Washington Post that when he found out about the award, he "was at rock bottom." A docudrama project for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting had just fallen through. "I was totally bankrupt, totally no money."

Burnett used the grant to support himself and his family while he worked on his third major film, To Sleep with Anger. Investors put $1.4 million into the film, "which by Hollywood standards is cab fare," David Mills wrote in the Washington Post. Still, it was a huge amount compared to My Brother's Wedding, which cost just $80,000.

To Sleep with Anger—set in south-central Los Angeles, like many of Burnett's films—is a dark comedy that combines southern folklore with contemporary family drama. To Sleep with Anger was Burnett's first project to feature professional actors, including the star Danny Glover. Glover was initially asked to play a small role in the film, but was so enthusiastic that he agreed to play a major role for a reduced fee and even invested money in the production.

To Sleep with Anger won the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 1990, and, like Killer of Sheep, was named a national treasure by the Library of Congress. However, the film performed poorly at the box office, even among African-American audiences. He attributed the problem to poor distribution—but he also blamed the movie industry as a whole, which, according to Burnett, dulls the public taste for thought-provoking films. "It's not a question of culture, it's a question of trying to control those dollars," Burnett told the Washington Post.

Found Outlet for Work in Television

Burnett's next project was to direct a made-for-television documentary, America Becoming. Financed by the Ford Foundation, the program focused on ethnic diversity in the United States, and particularly the relationship between recent immigrants and other racial groups. While working on the documentary, Burnett was shocked by the lack of self-esteem among the African Americans he interviewed. "The hope of being able to accomplish something, and self-esteem itself, is totally missing from the black community now," he told Reynaud. "One of the kids we interviewed said, ‘We're going the way of the American Indians.’"

Burnett followed the documentary with The Glass Shield, a feature-length police drama inspired by a true story. In the film, a black rookie cop who wants to fit in takes part in the wrongful arrest and prosecution of a black man, played by the rap artist Ice Cube. The Glass Shield was arguably Burnett's first conventional drama, an apparent attempt to appeal to a wider audience. However, the film was misleadingly marketed as an urban action thriller, and it did not find an audience.

Burnett's next project was Nightjohn, a made-for-television special that was shown on the Disney channel—an odd corporate pairing for one of America's most independent filmmakers. Burnett was hired at the request of the actor Delroy Lindo, who at that time was slated to play the film's lead. Lindo left the project and was replaced by the frequent Burnett collaborator Carl Lumbly, but Burnett remained to direct the story of a black man who escapes slavery, learns to read, and returns to the South to find his family and teach others. "It's about education and the price people paid for it," Burnett told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

After Nightjohn, other opportunities developed in the TV arena. Burnett directed The Wedding, a miniseries starring Halle Berry, for Oprah Winfrey's production company; that was followed by the civil rights drama Selma, Lord, Selma and the baseball fable Finding Buck McHenry, which starred Ossie Davis. In between these efforts, he continued to direct short films, such as When It Rains (1995) and Olivia's Story (2000). He also directed feature releases, such as The Annihilation of Fish (1999), which couldn't find distribution despite the fact that it featured the screen legends James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave. Burnett shot another movie, Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation, on location in Africa for a Namibian production company. The two-and-a-half hour epic was a biographical piece about Sam Nujoma, the father of Namibia's independence movement.

However, Burnett's films wouldn't return to the big screen in the United States until 2007, when Killer of Sheep was restored and finally given a commercial release. Due to the primitive conditions under which the film was originally shot, even the best prints of Killer of Sheep did not do the director's vision justice. However, enhancing images in the film that had been obscured because of poor lighting or difficulties in developing proved to be easy compared to clearing the rights to the music Burnett used in the film. Because Killer of Sheep was a student film not intended for commercial distribution, Burnett used a number of songs from the 1930s and 1940s without permission. Obtaining permission to release a movie containing all the songs Burnett used was an arduous and expensive task that took years to complete.

However, Killer of Sheep's long-belated release had the effect of introducing his work to a new generation of viewers, many of whom had no idea of the work Burnett had been doing over the past thirty years. As A. O. Scott noted in the New York Times, "At a moment when the term independent film is taken to refer either to midbudget studio projects anchored by Oscar-soliciting performances or to the aimless navel-gazing of under-stimulated hipsters (Speak up! Stop mumbling!), Mr. Burnett's work is an indelible reminder of what real independence looks like." Even though the film was a reaction to the state of black films in the 1970s, the blaxploitation era, and "the images that were perpetuated by Hollywood movies, the stereotypes from Birth of a Nation," as he told Damon Smith of the Bright Lights Film Journal, the film remains just as relevant today as it was then.

Furthermore, the restoration of Killer of Sheep allowed Burnett to enjoy the benefits of a system that did not exist for independent filmmakers in the late 1970s: the home video market. Besides Killer of Sheep, Milestone Film and Video also purchased the rights to My Brother's Wedding, giving Burnett the opportunity to finally cut the film to his satisfaction. After a short theatrical release, both features, along with several of Burnett's short films, were released on DVD as the Charles Burnett Collection.

Burnett hopes his films will serve as an inspiration to the black community. He explained to Reynaud that "[s]elf-esteem has to be rebuilt. And very few films contain things that could inspire their audiences—such as real heroes—everyday people who accomplish something and make sacrifices, real people you can applaud…. We need stories dealing with emotions, with real problems like growing up and coming to grips with who you are; movies that give you a sense of direction, an example."

Selected works

Killer of Sheep, 1977.

My Brother's Wedding, 1983.

To Sleep with Anger, 1990.

America Becoming (television documentary), 1991.

The Glass Shield, 1994.

Nightjohn (made for television), 1996.

The Wedding (made for television), 1998.

The Annihilation of Fish, 1999.

Selma, Lord, Selma (made for television), 1999.

Finding Buck McHenry (made for television), 2000.

The Blues: Warming by the Devil's Fire (made for television), 2003.

Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (made for television), 2003.

Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation, 2007.

Sources

Periodicals

Atlanta Journal-Constitution, July 29, 1990, p. N1; June 23, 1996, p. L5.

Black American Literature Forum, summer 1991, p. 323.

Bright Lights Film Journal, vol. 60, May 2008.

Chicago Tribune, January 11, 1991.

New York Times, January 1, 1995, sec. 2, p. 9; January 30, 1997, p. C13; January 31, 1997, p. C8; March 25, 2007; September 14, 2007.

Washington Post, October 28, 1990 p. G1; June 4, 1995, p. G7.

Online

"Charles Burnett Profile," Turner Classic Movies, http://www.tcm.com/thismonth/article/?cid=184971 (accessed May 30, 2008).

Kim, Nelson, "Charles Burnett Interview," Senses of Cinema, http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/directors/03/burnett.html (accessed May 30, 2008).

Mitchell, Elvis, "Charles Burnett," The Treatment Podcast, http://www.kcrw.com/etc/programs/tt/tt080409charles_burnett (accessed May 30, 2008).

—Carrie Golus and Derek Jacques

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Burnett, Charles 1944–

Charles Burnett 1944

Filmmaker

Films Reflect Southern Influences

Created Killer of Sheep as M.F.A. Thesis

Won Prestigious Genius Grant

Hoped Films Would Inspire Black Viewers

Sources

Since the late 1960s, Charles Burnett has been making highly-acclaimed films about the experience of African Americans. Burnetts films have been shown at festivals throughout the world, and have received several prestigious awards; still, most American moviegoers have never seen his films or heard of him. According to Bernard Weinraub, writing in the New York Times, many critics refer to Burnett as the nations least-known great filmmaker and most gifted black director.

As an independent filmmaker, Burnett has total control over his projects: he writes, casts, directs, and often even shoots his own films. Most of the films I like to do arent very commercial.... Theyre character-driven and theme-driven, Burnett told Weinraub. However, because financing for non-commercial projects is difficult to find, Burnett has made only four full-length films throughout his long career. I never really call myself a filmmaker because of the fact that its so infrequent that I do it, like every couple of years, Burnett continued.

Despite the fact that Burnett has completed so few projects, he is extremely well-respected in the arts community. His films Killer of Sheep (1974) and To Sleep with Anger (1990) have been designated as national treasures by the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. Burnett has received grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the J. P. Getty Foundation, as well as a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur genius grant in 1988.

According to David Nicholson, writing in the Washington Post,. Burnetts films are conscious attempts to make artin the sense of rendering experience truthfully and faithfullyinstead of entertainment.... While eminently accessible, Burnetts are not easy films. He does not condescend to his audience with Hollywood conventions.... His characters are real people in real situations, trying, as all of us must, to work out their destinies.

As for Burnett, he has no patience with moviegoersparticularly African Americanswho want to see escapist Hollywood blockbusters. ... the black male is an endangered species, we are among the underclass.... And someone says, Well, I want to see a movie that doesnt say anything, he was quoted as saying in the Washington Post Thats stupid! Its like someone participating in their own genocide.

Films Reflect Southern Influences

Charles Burnett was born in 1944 in Vicksburg, Mississippi; his mother was a nurses aide, his father was in the military. When Burnett was three, the family moved to Los Angeles, settling in the predominantly black neighborhood of Watts. A short time afterward, Burnetts

At a Glance

Born Charles Burnett, 1944, Vicksburg, Mississippi; father in the military, mother a nurses aide, raised by grandmother; married Gaye Shannon-Burnett; two sons, Steven and Johnathan. Education: B.A., M.F.A. in film, University of California at Los Angeles.

Filmmaker. Wrote and directed Killer of Sheep (finished 1974, released 1978), The Horse (short film), late 1970s, My Brothers Wedding, 1983, To Sleep with Anger, 1990, The Glass Shield, 1995, Nightjohn (made-for-television film), 1996. Wrote screenplay for Bless Their Little Hearts, 1984. Directed television documentary America Becoming, 1991.

Awards: Louis B. Mayer Award, UCLA; Critics Prize, 1981 Berlin Film Festival, for Killer of Sheep; John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur genius grant, 1988; Special Jury Prize, 1990 Sundance Film Festival, for To Sleep with Anger; grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the J. P. Getty Foundation; Killer of Sheep and To Sleep with Anger designated as national treasures by the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.

Addresses: HomeView Park, Los Angeles, CA. Officedo Miramax Films, 375 Greenwich St, 4th Floor, New York, NY 10013.

parents separated, and he and his brother were raised by their grandmother.

In the years after World War II, many African Americans, like the Burnetts, had moved from the rural South to large northern cities. As a result, the Los Angeles community where he grew up was Southern in culture, Burnett told the Washington Post. Burnetts upbringing had a strong influence on his films, which often combine Southern folklore with contemporary themes. A lot of traditions were carried on, and storytelling was one, Burnett was quoted as saying in the Washington Post. I think its important to have your own stories. Its important for kids to model themselves afterto have images of... whats right and wrong.

While many of Burnetts films stress the importance of community, as a child he often felt excluded because he stuttered when he spoke. Burnett has speculated that his stutter may have contributed to his desire to become an artist. ... maybe because I have a serious speech impediment, I always felt like an outsideran observerwho wasnt able to participate because I couldnt speak very well, he was quoted as saying in Black American Literature Forum So this inability to communicate must have led me in a certain directionto try to find some other means to express myself and my concerns.

As a young man, Burnett did not find much support for his artistic ambitions. I was always interested in arts, Burnett told the Washington Post. But my community wasnt interested in arts. You had to do something concrete, you had to make a living. Burnett initially tried to live up to these expectations by enrolling at Los Angeles Community College to study electronics. Once he took a course in creative writing, however, he realized that he wanted to become an artist of some kind. In 1965, he left the community college and enrolled in the film program at the University of California at Los Angeles, where he earned a B.A. and then an M.F.A.

Created Killer of Sheep as M.F.A. Thesis

As a student at UCLA, Burnett met and worked with other African American film students. Years later, this group of filmmakers came to be called the L.A. Rebellion, a term which Burnett dislikes: It wasnt a school of black filmmakers, or a conscious effort, he was quoted as saying in Black American Literature Forum.

At the time, independent filmsand particularly those made by African Americanshad very little chance of being picked up for distribution. As a result, Burnett has said, he and his fellow students were freed from any pressure to be commercial. We were convinced that there wasnt any outlet for our work. So we had a chance to indulge a little bit and be creative and say what we wanted, Burnett was quoted as saying in Black American Literature Forum.

For his masters thesis, Burnett wrote and directed Killer of Sheep, which later would earn him international acclaim. Set in Watts, Killer of Sheep is a stark family drama about an unemployed slaughterhouse worker who tries to remain a good husband and father. The project took five years to completepartly because Burnett has promised a role to a friend who was serving time in prison, and continually failed to make parole. The black and white film, which was made for less than $10,000, was finally completed in 1974, but was not released commercially until 1978. In the meantime, Burnett had completed a short film, The Horse.

Burnett initially received recognition as a filmmaker in Europe, particularly after Killer of Sheep won the Critics Prize at the 1981 Berlin Film Festival. While Burnett appreciated the critical acclaimIt gave me the sense that the films I had made were real films, he told Black American Literature Forum. it was painful to be ignored in his own country. For a black person, who is already aware of the fact that he or she is an outsider (in his or her own country), it is a doubly frustrating situation, Burnett was quoted as saying in Black American Literature Forum.

Killer of Sheep is a brilliant work, Tony Gittens, director of the Black Film Institute at the University of the District of Columbia, told the Washington Post. As film-as-art, it was just wonderful, but it also captured an authenticity of his community. Years later, in 1990, Killer of Sheep would be among the 50 films designated as national treasures by the National Film Registry of the Library of Congressalong with such well-known movies as Citizen Kane and The Godfather.

Won Prestigious Genius Grant

Burnetts next film, My Brothers Wedding. his first feature to be shot on 35mm film stockwas released in 1983. My Brothers Wedding, a comedy-drama, tells the story of a young black man torn between self-destructive street life and pretentious upward mobility.

Like Killer of Sheep, My Brothers Wedding was done on a shoestring budget, and featured non-professional actors, including Burnetts wife, Gaye Shannon-Burnett, a costume designer. While both Killer of Sheep and My Brothers Wedding have been criticized for the amateurish acting, the films themselves have received consistently positive reviews. Despite its rough edges, this is an impressive effort, Clifford Terry of the Chicago Tribune wrote about My Brothers Wedding.

Even as the accolades rolled in, Burnett struggled to make ends meet. While applying for grants to make his films, he worked as a scriptreader and messenger for a Los Angeles talent agency, wrote screenplays and did cinematography for friends films, and even painted houses or mowed lawns when necessary.

In 1988, Burnett was awarded a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation award, commonly known as a genius grant. The grant$275,000 paid over five years, with no strings attachedis intended to free gifted individuals to pursue their own projects. When Burnett found out about the awardfor which an artist has to be nominated by someone elseI was at rock bottom, he told the Washington Post. A docudrama project for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting had just fallen through. I was totally bankrupt, totally no money.

Burnett used the grant to support himself and his familyhe and his wife have two sons, Steven and Jonathanwhile working on his third major film, To Sleep with Anger Investors put $1.4 million into the film, which by Hollywood standards is cab fare, David Mills wrote in the Washington Post. Still, it was a huge amount compared to the cost of My Brothers Wedding, which cost just $80,000.

To Sleep with Anger. set in South Central Los Angeles, like most of Burnetts filmsis a dark comedy that combines Southern folklore with contemporary family drama. To Sleep with Anger was Burnetts first project to feature professional actors, including Danny Glover. Glover was initially asked to play a small role in the film, but was so enthusiastic that he agreed to play a major role for a reduced fee, and even invested money in the production.

To Sleep with Anger won the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 1990, and, like Killer of Sheep, was named a national treasure by the Library of Congress. However, the film performed poorly at the box office, even among African American audiences. Burnett attributed the problem to poor distributionbut also blamed the movie industry as a whole, which dulls the public taste for thought-provoking films. Its not a question of culture, its a question of trying to control those dollars, Burnett told the Washington Post.

Hoped Films Would Inspire Black Viewers

Burnetts next project was to direct a made-for-television documentary, America Becoming. Financed by the Ford Foundation, the program focused on ethnic diversity in the United States, and particularly the relationship between recent immigrants and other racial groups. While working on the documentary, Burnett has said, he was shocked by the lack of self-esteem among the African Americans he interviewed. ... the hope of being able to accomplish something, and self-esteem itself, is totally missing from the black community now, he told Black American Literature Forum. One of the kids we interviewed said, Were going the way of the American Indians.

Burnetts next full-length feature film was The Glass Shield, a police drama inspired by a true story. In the film, a black rookie cop who wants to fit in takes part in the wrongful arrest and prosecution of a black man, played by rap artist Ice Cube. According to Michael Sragow, writing in the New York Times, The Glass Shield was Burnetts first real attempt to appeal to a wider audience.

Burnetts most recent project was NightJohn, a made-for-television special that was shown on the Disney channel in June of 1996. Based on a novel by Gary Paulsen, Nightjohn tells the story of a black man who escapes slavery, learns to read, and returns to the South to find his family and teach others. Its about education and the price people paid for it, Burnett told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. As of January of 1997, Burnett was working on a documentary about the Reconstruction era, helped by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Burnett hopes his films will serve as an inspiration to the black community. Self-esteem has to be rebuilt, he was quoted as saying in Black American Literature Forum. And very few films contain things that could inspire their audiencessuch as real heroeseveryday people who accomplish something and make sacrifices, real people you can applaud.... We need stories dealing with emotions, with real problems like growing up and coming to grips with who you are; movies that give you a sense of direction, an example.

Sources

Atlanta Journal-Constitution, July 29, 1990, p. N1; Jun. 23, 1996, p. L5.

Black American Literature Forum, Summer 1991, p. 323.

Chicago Tribune, Jan. 11, 1991.

Washington Post, Oct. 28, 1990 p. Gl; Jun. 4, 1995, p. G7.

New York Times, Jan. 1, 1995, sec. 2, p.9; Jan. 30, 1997, p. C13; Jan. 31, 1997, p. C8.

Carrie Golus

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Burnett, Charles

BURNETT, Charles



Nationality: American. Born: Vicksburg, Mississippi, 1944. Education: Studied electronics at Los Angeles Community College, and theater, film, writing, arts, and languages at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. Career: Directed first feature film, Killer of Sheep, 1977. Awards: Guggenheim Foundation fellowship, 1981; Critics Prize, Berlin Festival, and First Prize, U.S. Festival, 1981, for Killer of Sheep; National Endowment for the Arts grant, MacArthur Foundation fellowship, and Rockefeller Foundation fellowship, 1988; Best Director and Best Screenplay, Independent Spirit Awards, Independent Feature Project/West, Best Film, Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and Best Film, National Society of Film Critics, 1990, for To Sleep with Anger.Agent: William Morris Agency, Los Angeles.


Films as Director:

1969

Several Friends (short)

1973

The House (short)

1977

Killer of Sheep (+ sc, pr, ph, ed)

1983

My Brother's Wedding (+ sc, pr, ph)

1989

Guests of Hotel Astoria (+ ph)

1990

To Sleep with Anger (+ sc)

1994

The Glass Shield (+ sc)

1995

When It Rains (short)

1996

Nightjohn (for TV)

1998

The Wedding (mini for TV); Dr. Endesha Ida Mae Holland (doc/short)

1999

Selma, Lord, Selma (for TV); The Annihilation of Fish; Olivia's Story

2000

Finding Buck McHenry

Other Films:

1983

Bless Their Little Hearts (Woodbury) (sc, ph)

1985

The Crocodile Conspiracy (ph)

1987

I Fresh (sc)



Publications


By BURNETT: articles—

"Charles Burnett," interview by S. Sharp in Black Film Review (Washington, D.C.), no. 1, 1990.

"Entretien avec Charles Burnett," interview by M. Cientat and M. Ciment in Positif (Paris), November 1990.

"They've Gotta Have Us," interview by K. G. Bates in New YorkTimes, 14 July 1991.

Burnett, Charles, and Charles Lane, "Charles Burnett and Charles Lane," in American Film (Los Angeles), August 1991.

Burnett, Charles, "Breaking & Entering," in Filmmaker (Los Angeles), vol. 3, no. 1, 1994.

"Simple Pain," an interview with M. Arvin, in Film International (Tehran), vol. 3, no. 2, 1995.

Burnett, Charles & Lippy, Tod, "To Sleep with Anger: Writing and Directing To Sleep with Anger," in Scenario (Rockville), Spring 1996.


On BURNETT: articles—

Reynaud, B., "Charles Burnett," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), June 1990.

Kennedy, L., "The Black Familiar," in Village Voice (New York), 16 October 1990.

Amiel, V., "To Sleep, to Dream," in Positif (Paris), November 1990.

"In from the Wilderness," in Time (New York), 17 June 1991.

Krohn, B., "Flics Story," in Cahiers du Cinéma, December 1993.

Makarah, O.F., "Director: 'The Glass Shield'," in The IndependentFilm & Video Monthly (New York), October 1994.

White, Armond, "Sticking to the Soul," in Film Comment (New York), January-February 1997.

Thompson, Cliff, "The Devil Beats His Wife: Small Moments and Big Statements in the Films of Charles Burnett," in Cineaste (New York), December 1997.


* * *

Prior to the release of To Sleep with Anger in 1990, Charles Burnett had for two decades been writing and directing low-budget, little-known, but critically praised films that examined life and relationships among contemporary African Americans. Killer of Sheep, his first feature, is a searing depiction of ghetto life; My Brother's Wedding knowingly examines the relationship between two siblings on vastly different life tracks; Bless Their Little Hearts (directed by Billy Woodbury, but scripted and photographed by Burnett) is a poignant portrait of a black family. But how many had even heard of these films, let alone seen them? Thanks to the emergence in the 1980s of the prolific Spike Lee as a potent box office (as well as critical) force, however, a generation of African-American moviemakers have had their films not only produced but more widely distributed.

Such was the case with To Sleep with Anger, released theatrically by the Samuel Goldwyn Company. The film, like Burnett's earlier work, is an evocative, character-driven drama about relationships between family members and the fabric of domestic life among contemporary African Americans. It is the story of Harry Mention (Danny Glover), a meddlesome trickster who arrives in Los Angeles at the doorstep of his old friend Gideon (Paul Butler). The film details the manner in which Harry abuses the hospitality of Gideon, and his effect on Gideon's family. First there is the older generation: Gideon and his wife Suzie (Mary Alice), who cling to the traditions of their Deep South roots. Gideon has attempted to pass on his folklore, and his sense of values, to his two sons. One, Junior (Carl Lumbly), accepts this. But the other, Babe Brother (Richard Brooks), is on the economic fast track—and in conflict with his family.

While set within an African-American milieu, To Sleep with Anger transcends the ethnic identities of its characters; it also deals in a generic way with the cultural differences between parents and children, the manner in which individuals learn (or don't learn) from experience, and the need to push aside those who only know how to cause violence and strife. As such, it becomes a film that deals with universal issues.

The Glass Shield is a departure for Burnett in that his scenario is not set within an African-American universe. Instead, he places his characters in a hostile white world. The Glass Shield is a thinking person's cop film. Burnett's hero is a young black officer fresh out of the police academy, JJ Johnson (Michael Boatman), who becomes the first African American assigned to a corruption-laden, all-white sheriff's station in Los Angeles. Johnson is treated roughly by the station's commanding officer and some of the veteran cops. Superficially, it seems as if he is being dealt with in such a manner solely because he is an inexperienced rookie, in need of toughening and educating to the ways of the streets. But the racial lines clearly are drawn when one of his senior officers tells him, "You're one of us. You're not a brother." Johnson, who always has wanted to be a cop, desires only to do well and fit in. And so he stands by idly as black citizens are casually stopped and harassed by his fellow officers. Even more telling, with distressing regularity, blacks seem to have died under mysterious circumstances while in custody within the confines of the precinct.

As the film progresses, Burnett creates the feeling that a bomb is about to explode. And it does, when Johnson becomes involved in the arrest of a black man, framed on a murder charge, and readily agrees to lie in court to protect a fellow officer. Burnett's ultimate point is that in contemporary America it is impossible for a black man to cast aside his racial identity as he seeks his own personal destiny. First and foremost, he is an African American, existing within a society in which all of the power is in the hands of a white male elite. But African Americans are not the sole powerless entity in The Glass Shield. Johnson befriends his station's first female officer (Lori Petty), who must deal with sexism within the confines of her precinct house as much as on the streets. Together, this pair becomes united in a struggle against a white male-dominated system in which everyday corruption and hypocrisy are the rule.

Burnett's themes—African-American identity within the family unit and, subsequently, African-American identity within the community at large—are provocative and meaningful. It seems certain that he will never direct a film that is anything short of insightful in its content.

—Rob Edelman

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Burnett, Charles 1944- (Charles Burnette)

Burnett, Charles 1944- (Charles Burnette)

PERSONAL

Born April 13, 1944, in Vicksburg, MS; father, in the military; mother, a nurse's aide; married Gaye Shannon (a costume designer and actress); children: Jonathan, Steven. Education: Los Angeles City College, A.A., 1966; University of California, Los Angeles, B.A., 1971, M.F.A., 1977.

Addresses:

Agent—Paul Alan Smith, International Creative Management, 10250 Constellation Way, 9th Floor, Los Angeles, CA 90067.

Career:

Director, cinematographer, editor, producer, actor, and writer. Chasin-Park-Citron Agency, worked as script reader and synopsis writer; Charles Burnett Productions, founder and principal. Previously worked as a film instructor.

Awards, Honors:

Louis B. Mayer Award, University of California, Los Angeles; Special Jury Prize, United States Film Festival, and Critics' Prize, Berlin International Film Festival, both 1981, for Killer of Sheep; Guggenheim fellowship, 1981; grants from National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1985, and John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, 1988; Rockefeller Foundation fellowship, 1988; special award, Los Angeles Film Critics Association, 1990; special jury recognition and nomination for Grand Jury Prize, dramatic category, Sundance Film Festival, 1990, National Society of Film Critics Award, best screenplay, and Independent Spirit Awards, best director and best screenplay, Independent Features Project West, all 1991, all for To Sleep with Anger; Maya Deren Award, American Film Institute, 1991; nomination for Golden Leopard, Locarno International Film Festival, 1994, for The Glass Shield; special citation, National Society of Film Critics, 1998, for Nightjohn; Freedom in Film Award, lifetime achievement, Nashville Independent Film Festival, 1999; WorldFest Houston Silver Award, theatrical comedy feature film category, 2000, and Audience Award, best feature, Sarasota Film Festival, 2001, both for The Annihilation of Fish; WorldFest Houston Silver Award, theatrical family or children's feature film category, 2000, for Finding Buck McHenry; Independent Film Award, Arizona International Film Festival, 2000; Special Award, New York Film Critics Circle, 2007, for Killer of Sheep; grants from J. Paul Getty Foundation and Ford Foundation.

CREDITS

Film Director:

Several Friends, 1969.

The Horse (short), Burnett, 1973.

(And producer, cinematographer, and editor) Killer of Sheep, Mypheduh Films, 1977.

(And producer and cinematographer) My Brother's Wedding, Milestone Film and Video, 1983.

To Sleep with Anger, Samuel Goldwyn Company, 1990.

The Glass Shield (also known as The Johnny Johnson Trial), Miramax, 1994.

When It Rains (short film), 1995.

Dr. Endesha Ida Mae Holland, 1998.

(And editor) Olivia's Story, 1999.

The Annihilation of Fish, Regent Entertainment, 1999.

Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (documentary), California Newsreel, 2003.

Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation (documentary), 2007.

Film Cinematographer:

(As Charles Burnette; and editor) Bush Mama, Tricontinental Film Center, 1976.

A Different Image, 1982.

Bless Their Little Hearts, Black Independent Films, 1984.

Crocodile Conspiracy (short film), Mosaic Films, 1986.

Guests of Hotel Astoria, 1989.

Young at Hearts, 1994.

Film Appearances:

Daughters of the Dust, Kino International, 1992.

Umpire, Olivia's Story, 1999.

Man of Cinema: Pierre Rissient, 2007.

Television Director; Movies:

Nightjohn, The Disney Channel, 1996.

Selma, Lord, Selma, ABC, 1999.

Finding Buck McHenry, Showtime, 2000.

Television Director; Miniseries:

The Wedding (also known as Oprah Winfrey Presents: The Wedding), ABC, 1998.

"Warming by the Devil's Fire," The Blues, PBS, 2002.

Television Director; Specials:

Director and cinematographer, America Becoming, PBS, 1991.

Coproducer, cinematographer, and editor, Silence Broken: Korean Comfort Women, PBS, 1999.

Producer and director, For Reel?, PBS, 2003.

Television Director; Episodic:

"The Iraq War," American Family (also known as American Family: Journey of Dreams), c. 2003.

Television Appearances; Specials:

Story of a People: The Black Road to Hollywood, 1990.

Delroy Lindo in Conversation with Charles Burnett, Showtime, 2000.

Television Appearances; Episodic:

Independent View, PBS, 2002.

WRITINGS

Screenplays and Film Scripts:

Killer of Sheep, Mypheduh Films, 1977.

My Brother's Wedding, Milestone Film and Video, 1983.

Bless Their Little Hearts, Black Independent Features, 1984.

To Sleep with Anger, Samuel Goldwyn Company, 1990.

The Glass Shield (also known as The Johnny Johnson Trial), Miramax, 1994.

Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (documentary), California Newsreel, 2003.

Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation (documentary), 2007.

Television Miniseries:

"Warming by the Devil's Fire," The Blues, PBS, 2002.

Television Specials:

America Becoming, PBS, 1991.

For Reel?, PBS, 2003.

Print Journalism:

Contributor to periodicals, including American Film and Filmmaker.

ADAPTATIONS

The 1995 film When It Rains was based on a story by Burnett.

OTHER SOURCES

Books:

Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 16, Gale, 1997.

International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Volume 2: Directors, 4th edition, St. James Press, 2000.

Periodicals:

Cineaste, spring, 1997, p. 24.

Film Comment, January-February, 1997, p. 38.

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"Burnett, Charles 1944- (Charles Burnette)." Contemporary Theatre, Film and Television. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 Jul. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Burnett, Charles 1944- (Charles Burnette)." Contemporary Theatre, Film and Television. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/burnett-charles-1944-charles-burnette

"Burnett, Charles 1944- (Charles Burnette)." Contemporary Theatre, Film and Television. . Retrieved July 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/burnett-charles-1944-charles-burnette