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Charles Burnett

Interviews

Robert E. Kapsis

Publication Year: 2011

Charles Burnett (b. 1944) is a groundbreaking African American filmmaker and one of this country's finest directors, yet he remains largely unknown. His films, most notably Killer of Sheep(1977) and To Sleep with Anger (1990), are considered classics, yet few filmgoers have seen them or heard of Burnett. The interviews in this volume explore this paradox and collectively shed light on the work of a rare film master whose stories bring to the screen the texture and poetry of life in the black community.The best qualities of Burnett's films-rich characterizations, morally and emotionally complex narratives, and intricately observed tales of African American life-are precisely the things that make his films a tough sell in the mass marketplace. As many of the interviews reveal, Hollywood has been largely inept in responding to this marketing challenge. "It takes an extraordinary effort to keep going," Burnett told Terrence Rafferty in 2001, "when everybody's saying to you, 'No one wants to see that kind of movie,' or 'There's no black audience.'" All the interviews selected for this volume (spanning more than three decades of Burnett's directorial career including his recent work) examine, in various degrees, Burnett's status as a true independent filmmaker and explore his motivation for making films that chronicle the black experience in America.

Published by: University Press of Mississippi

Contents

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pp. v-vii

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Introduction

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pp. ix-xxvi

Charles Burnett is a groundbreaking African American filmmaker and one of this country’s greatest directors, yet he remains largely unknown. His films, most notably Killer of Sheep (1977) and To Sleep with Anger (1990), are considered classics, yet few filmgoers have seen them or heard of Burnett. The interviews in this volume explore this paradox ...

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Chronology

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pp. xxvii-xxix

Charles Burnett is a groundbreaking African American filmmaker and one of this country’s greatest directors, yet he remains largely unknown. His films, most notably Killer of Sheep (1977) and To Sleep with Anger (1990), are considered classics, yet few filmgoers have seen them or heard of Burnett. The interviews in this volume explore this paradox ...

Filmography

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pp. xxxi-xliv

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Black Independent American Cinema: Charles Burnett

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pp. 3-4

Working on the Coast like Ben Caldwell is Charles Burnett, whose excellent Killer of Sheep was on view again, and whose short The Horse was seen for the first time. He develops here an entirely different concept. ...

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An Artisan of Daily Life: Charles Burnett

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pp. 5-9

Question: Your original training is in electronics. How and why did you choose the cinema? Charles Burnett: I’ve always been interested in photography, even though I was never lucky enough to own a camera when I was a child. That was the first thing that attracted me to the movies. ...

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Life Drawings: Charles Burnett’s Realism

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pp. 10-24

Charles Burnett, forty-four years old, is a fiercely independent Black filmmaker living in Los Angeles. His first feature film, Killer of Sheep, made while he was a student at UCLA in 1978 for ten thousand dollars, is a masterpiece of American neo-realism, a painfully humorous ...

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The House of Spirits

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pp. 25-27

It’s a sweltering July day in South Central Los Angeles. On a quiet block of 20th Street, inside a sprawling, creaky, two-story Craftsman house with lace curtains and a worn-out front lawn, a crew of about fifty people is making a movie. In front of the Panaflex camera, an older man sits on the edge of a double bed, wearing only a burgundy pajama ...

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The Long-Distance Runner: Charles Burnett’s Quiet Revolution

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pp. 28-37

When the American Film Institute’s Black Independent Cinema panel convened last spring, attendees with natty dreads and bulging Filofaxes scanned the room, hoping to catch a glimpse of the latest local son done good—Charles Burnett. They had their business cards at the ...

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The Black Familiar

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pp. 38-41

Back in 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan really screwed things up for us with his essay “The Negro Family.” But first there was slavery. The absent father became the progenitor of laziness, apathy, hopelessness, poverty, pathology, ad nauseam. (Forget the male bias that lurks in Moynihan’s call for black men to assume their patriarchal rights.) The ...

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Interview with Charles Burnett

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pp. 42-52

The American Black independent filmmaker Charles Burnett, born in 1944, was noticed for the first time by French critics in 1981, on the occasion of the showing in Paris and at the Berlin Film Festival of his first feature film Killer of Sheep, a remarkable account of the alienation of a worker from the Black district of Watts in Los Angeles, shot under ...

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An Interview with Charles Burnett

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pp. 53-64

Completed in 1984, My Brother’s Wedding, Charles Burnett’s first 35mm feature, was less commercially successful than it deserved to be (perhaps because it dealt with the difficult issue of class differences within the African American community), and the filmmaker was, once again, faced with the nightmare of waiting years before he could find ...

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One on One: Charles Burnett and Charles Lane

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pp. 65-74

“I saw one of Charles Lane’s films, A Place in Time, in Paris in 1980. There was a special program of Black American films screened at the FNAC. His film went over big. I met him a year later at the Berlin International Film Festival. He was wearing a trench coat that made him ...

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The House I Live In: An Interview with Charles Burnett

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pp. 75-94

Killer of Sheep, Charles Burnett’s first feature film, was made in 1973 as his thesis project at UCLA and shot in its entirety on location in South Central Los Angeles. Beautifully filmed by Burnett himself, the film tenderly recounts a few days in the life of a slaughterhouse worker, ...

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An Explorer of the Black Mind Looks Back, but Not in Anger

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pp. 95-99

“Faulkner put race on the table,” Charles Burnett says, “and he was aware of the black psychology. The right to exist, how to exist, the power to endure were always part of his theme.” ...

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Burnett Looks Back

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pp. 100-102

In 1990, Charles Burnett officially became a national treasure when his first feature, Killer of Sheep (1977), was designated by the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant and worthy of preservation.” In its six years, the film registry has selected ...

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Violence Sells: So They’re Telling Charles Burnett

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pp. 103-105

Is it the public that’s not interested in African American movies unless they are violent and action-laden, or is it the film industry that’s stuck on pressing black filmmakers into the urban-ghetto-guerrilla mold of Do the Right Thing, Menace II Society, and Boyz n the Hood? ...

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Above It All: Charles Burnett Puts Black Power in Subtle Films

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pp. 106-108

Charles Burnett has a good laugh when he’s asked if there are things he wishes he’d done differently. The fifty-three-year-old director of crucially important black independents from To Sleep with Anger to My Brother’s Wedding is to have a retrospective at Lincoln Center, and his reaction to all his work being screened in one place reflects the ...

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Talking with Charles Burnett

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pp. 109-117

Charles Burnett, a 1988 MacArthur Fellow, has written or directed nine features for television and cinema, often carving his stories of contemporary African American life against the grains of the neighborhoods of Los Angeles, his home. Burnett received his M.F.A. from the UCLA School of Film and Television, and his thesis project Killer of Sheep ...

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Invisible Man

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pp. 118-125

When the filmmaker Charles Burnett was growing up in Los Angeles, he used to play the trumpet, and sometimes, he says, “I’d blow all day, just to hurt people.” This is rather a shocking statement, coming from this gentle, soft-spoken fifty-six-year-old man, whose movies rarely raise their voices and always seem more interested in healing ...

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Set This House on Fire: Nat Turner’s Second Coming

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pp. 126-129

“I was the great-grandson of a slave owner, and he was the great-grandson of slaves,” says Sophie’s Choice novelist William Styron, seventy-six, recalling his friendship with the late James Baldwin. “Jimmy dared write from a white point of view, and I thought that was admirable. It was at his prodding that I decided to jump into the soul of a black ...

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Warming by the Devil’s Fire: Director Interview

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pp. 130-133

Historically, there’s a complex, even antagonistic, relationship between the blues—the devil’s music, Satan’s music—and the church in the black community. A lot of blues players, many of them women, left the church to pursue a career in the blues, and ended up going back at the end of their days. In Warming by the Devil’s Fire, we mentioned how Son ...

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Charles Burnett

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pp. 134-137

Tuesday night, filmmaker Charles Burnett was invited to screen his new documentary, Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property, for a class here at Caltech and facilitate a Q&A afterward. A graduate of UCLA, Burnett is one of the most highly esteemed filmmakers currently working in the U.S. and he continues to be active in independent and black filmmaking circles. ...

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Independent Lens: Charles Burnett [Includes Image Plates]

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pp. 138-140

Charles Burnett’s first feature film, Killer of Sheep (1977), remains to this day a near-mythic object, one of the first fifty films inducted into the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry, yet rarely screened and never issued on video owing to unresolved copyright issues. Meanwhile, Burnett’s second feature, My Brother’s Wedding (1983), has ...

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Shadows of Watts, in the Light

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pp. 141-144

With the click of a mouse, Kathy Thomson brings a face out of the darkness—the face of a young African American woman, looking with sadness and concern out of a small screened window in a white frame house. The face belongs to the actress Kaycee Moore, a star of Charles Burnett’s 1977 debut feature Killer of Sheep, and it has been hidden in ...

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A Vision of Watts Still Frozen in Time

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pp. 145-149

Most student films, mercifully, do not get theatrical distribution. Certainly not thirty years after they were shot or with the combined efforts of crack film preservationists and a most persistent specialty film distributor. But Killer of Sheep, which will open Friday at the Nuart, is not ...

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This Bitter Earth

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pp. 150-160

“When I stumbled across a 16mm print of Killer of Sheep at film school in North Carolina, it was like finding gold. I had never seen an American film quite like it . . . raw, honest simplicity that left me sitting there in an excited silence. It echoed throughout George Washington, the first ...

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A Conversation with Charles Burnett

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pp. 161-167

Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep was one of those films I’d always heard mentioned here and there during my cinematic matriculation; most of what I knew about it was that I couldn’t see it, due to soundtrack rights issues that had kept it unreleased ever since it was made in 1977. But then, earlier this year, a trailer ...

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Charles Burnett’s Namibia Premieres at the 2007 LAFF

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pp. 168-173

Lauded as one of America’s most gifted filmmakers, Charles Burnett has just completed his largest film ever, Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation. While earning his MFA in filmmaking at UCLA, Burnett made the now classic Killer of Sheep, and on that basis he was awarded the prestigious John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship (also known as the ...

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Charles Burnett Celebrates a Milestone

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pp. 174-180

Though its film stock had nearly turned to vinegar by the time UCLA stepped in with a timely restoration, Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep is of a vintage that only gets better with age. Its neorealist approach to the life of a neighborhood is rich, but the surprise is that it’s also as fresh as the day it was made thirty years ago. It’s difficult to locate a ...

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Blues People

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pp. 181-186

Writing in Sight & Sound in 2002, the American critic Armond White called Charles Burnett’s 1977 debut feature Killer of Sheep “the least known great modern movie from the United States.” But over the past year awareness of the film has grown, at least in the U.S., where its rerelease last year had critics rushing to acclaim it as a rediscovered ...

Index

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pp. 187-197


E-ISBN-13: 9781604739503
E-ISBN-10: 1604739509
Print-ISBN-13: 9781604739497
Print-ISBN-10: 1604739495

Page Count: 224
Publication Year: 2011

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