Cinephiles received a surprise treat when, in 2007, Charles Burnett’s debut film “Killer of Sheep” was showcased in theaters and on DVD thirty years after it was created. Taking cues from Italian neo-realism, the movie examined a community of African Americans in L.A. as they lived their day-to-day lives, scraping by but always remaining optimistic. The release reached many new audiences, which begs the question — what is this brilliant artist up to now?
Unfortunately releasing his debut wasn’t the only hurdle that he had to face, with his second feature “My Brother’s Wedding” falling apart due to a principal actor bailing and his latest television project being a nightmare to control (which he talks about below). Still, the director has always pressed forward with projects of substance and interest, with even his most mainstream effort “Nightjohn” (a slavery drama for Disney) steering away from bland conventionalism and simple sentimentality, instead offering something much more genuine.
But he isn’t limited to just directing. Burnett has been the cinematographer for many of Dai Sil Kim-Gibson’s documentaries — including her work on the L.A. race riots — which were part of a retrospective at the Korean American Film Festival in New York. We got the chance to speak with him and discussed his and Kim-Gibson’s relationship, his thoughts on African Americans in cinema, and whether he would ever make a spiritual sequel to his first film.
What drew you to working with Dai Sil Kim-Gibson?
One of the things is that you have to respect talent. She said she was a novice in a certain way, but she’s really good in knowing how to work with people. That was really important. She also knows how to choose great, important subjects. She’s not going to sell out, she’ll speak the truth. Once we were in a very diverse high school, students spoke a record number of different languages. We were there for their cultural show, and the school was noticed for a number of things – Secretary of Education William Bennett said, at the time, that it was one of the worst schools in the nation. These kids put on this show that I swear to you, they could take it to Broadway as far as I’m concerned. All this talent is there and it’s the worst school in the nation? This is the Secretary of Education, making policies, who obviously didn’t know his job or do on-site research. If we went in trying to support their research, we would’ve further distorted reality. It takes a producer who is interested in the truth and challenging what was said and not in positioning themselves to get a job afterwards. You don’t get many people like that, and I definitely respect that.
Right now many areas in Los Angeles are taking an economic nosedive and people are boiling with anger. Do you think another riot will erupt?
If there’s another riot, it’ll be different. One of the biggest dangers though is that it won’t just be one group of people, it’s going to be many and make things worse. If you don’t educate people and you put them in a circumstance where they’re killing people and they think the only way they can get things is by doing things like that, it’s bad news. Nobody’s doing anything to prevent another riot. There’s a big difference between the haves and have nots. The new riots will be against those who “have” and won’t be so focused on the Korean community, but I think it’ll go more towards Beverly Hills. I think it’ll be much more dangerous because people are really frustrated.
“Killer of Sheep” captured the problems of that time but, in other recent interviews, you say they are worse. Would you ever go back there and do some sort of spiritual sequel?
Economically, all of the problems haven’t been solved and have gotten worse in many ways. I went back to my old neighborhood, it was a nightmare. When I was there it was a working class neighborhood, it had open spaces, but now it’s like everything has been overbuilt. I was driving down the street and a little girl just threw a cup into the street, littering, no respect. It’s like, what are people coming to? In “Killer of Sheep,” there was a sense of hope, people taking responsibility, that was Stan’s thing, being a model. People from the South didn’t have a lot of money, but they wanted a house and managed to get one. They had a trade, carpentry and such, when they’d work on houses kids would go out and help them. You felt something, a sense that you could do anything you wanted to. We weren’t totally pessimistic about everything. We always knew we could make a living.
When you ask me if I could go back and do something, I’d have to go back and really dig to find something positive. Overall, there’s too many kids being sacrificed to drugs and all. It’d be too graphic and hard.
How do you feel the progress has been for African Americans in cinema?
There’s probably a lot more blacks now in Hollywood having some say-so of their destiny. Will Smith, Ice Cube, etc. get major distribution, bank backing, studio backing. As far as doing films with any substance, maybe a few come out but in general it’s hard to make films that are challenging and alter one’s consciousness. They don’t want to make those, they want to make the same stereotypical films that support a lot of dumb notions.
How dangerous do you feel those types of movies are?
When I did “To Sleep With Anger,” someone asked at a screening “Where are the drugs? Why didn’t you show the violence in the community?” And it’s not all like that. That’s where I came from. I have a friend, he was in “For Colored Girls,” he was in China and people were coming out of a building, saw him, turned and ran. He was the only black person on the street and he was like, “What is this?” He went a little further and saw a theater that was playing all black exploitation films. This is where they got the image, this is where the fear comes from. Even in Namibia people asked me why the characters didn’t talk black, where did they get that from? Do I talk like that? They get these images, and it’s frightening when you think of how the world sees you in a certain way.
It seems like we’ve come a long way, but we really haven’t.
It hasn’t changed, it’s subtle in some ways but it hasn’t changed. They don’t address those problems. Then you have blacks doing it, making the same kind of movies. Now you have this post-racial attitude nonsense going on, now that Obama was elected it apparently doesn’t exist anymore. One of the things about good filmmaking is that it sort of challenges these myths that appear. A lot of films aren’t about that, they’re just about entertaining. The fact is if you try to write a story that deals with color in a human way, it’s like they don’t want to deal with it. Plus, we have to get black people to start supporting these films, as there’s a lot of great directors who are suffering because they can’t get a film. They have great stories to tell, and I think they need to be told.
You’ve worked in television a lot lately. How has that experience been?
It can be good. It’s a collaborative thing, so you’re not exactly doing what you want to do, but what you and someone else agrees on. On one, the producers had a certain way they wanted to do it and I couldn’t deal with it. I managed to finish it but it almost killed me. I couldn’t tell the actors which way to go, to do this or that. That was the worst experience I’ve ever had, it’s kinda like, what am I here for if I can’t contribute?
Have you sworn off television, then?
Well, I haven’t gotten another job yet, but if it was under that producer, you’d have to pay me a million dollars a minute. I had total blockage and almost had a breakdown. You had an actor that wants to do his thing, and since he’s a star you can’t do anything… it can be a joyous experience or it can be an awful experience. Television is a writer’s medium, unless you’re there from the development period. There’s some interesting things out there, on cable. I like “Justified.”
You were attached to a Walter Mosley book, are you still doing that? Anything else coming up?
No, I’m not doing that anymore. Now we’re trying to do a film on Obama’s mother (“Stanley Ann Dunham: A Most Generous Spirit“) — trying to get money for that. There’s “Faith and Credit,” Mark Magill wrote that, we’re trying to get money for that. There’s a really wonderful story that Jane Pullman wrote called “145th Street,” we’ve been attempting to do that for a long time. Then there’s “Grieve For The Past,” that Stanton Forbes novel, which is about a young girl who grows up in Kansas and experiences something life-changing. I’m also writing “Man In The Basket,” based off Chester Himes’s “The Crazy Kill,” we changed the name. So, my wheels are rolling.