Thanks to the support of scholars, film critics and cinephiles, Charles Burnett has long been recognized as one of the great American filmmakers, even distinguished by Jonathan Rosenbaum as America’s most “gifted black American director.” However, this critical appreciation has not amounted to much insofar as Burnett’s career, which has traveled along a bumpy road from day one. Known best for his 1978 masterpiece “Killer of Sheep,” he hasn’t made a feature in six years, and in 40 years of filmmaking has a limited, inconsistent output that has seen him work in TV, shorts, for Disney, but without ever properly breaking out.
It isn’t from lack of trying. Burnett has stories tell, and knows how important it is to share an authentic perspective on the African American experience, even as the Obama era has supposedly yielded more space for black voices. A modest, perhaps even meek man, Burnett hasn’t been aided by his unassuming disposition and lack of careerism, but it has a resulted in an oeuvre, that while inconvenient, is remarkable and uncompromising.
His 1990 narrative feature “To Sleep with Anger,” starring Danny Glover, has recently been restored and has screened at UCLA, the Venice Film Festival and most recently at the Chicago International Film Festival, where Burnett received a Career Achievement Award.
The film, overlooked upon its release, is a brilliantly strange folktale taking place in South Central L.A. with roots in the South (Burnett was born in Mississippi but was raised in California). Bordering on the surreal yet grounded in the reality of everyday life, the film follows as a mysterious man named Harry (Glover) comes knocking at the door of old pals Gideon and Suzie, who invite him to stay with them. It isn’t long before Harry’s influence seeps into the family, and begins to stir up trouble, particularly with their married son, Babe Brother, played by Richard Brooks, who quickly falls victim to Harry’s seemingly dark power. Babe begins to shirk his responsibility as a son, father and husband, and meanwhile the family starts to unravel.
Indiewire recently caught up with Burnett and actor Richard Brooks to discuss his career and this unfairly neglected film.
This restoration could mean that a new generation of movie lovers have the chance to appreciate this film. Could you talk about the lifespan this movie has had, your hopes for it in the future?
Charles Burnett: It had a quiet release at the New York Film Festival in 1990. It didn’t show in that many theatres. We were disappointed that it lacked support, it wasn’t promoted properly and it didn’t stay in cinemas long enough to gain momentum, which a movie of this sort needs.
Richard Brooks: Hopefully this restored print gives it a new life, people are discovering it and loving it now.
How did the restoration come about?
Burnett: Jacqueline Stewart and the people at UCLA put on a retrospective for former UCLA students and put on a program called L.A. Rebellion. In the 70s at UCLA, there were a number of black students who were making films that reacted against Hollywood and Blaxploitation films. It had a large impact on students coming in. They also played at a lot of festivals. Clyde Taylor, a scholar, named it L.A. Rebellion. Because of the retro, Sony came on and restored the print.
Dennis Doros and Amy Heller from Milestone Films got Grover Crisp on board, a genius when it comes to restoration.
It’s an interesting film in your career. Killer of Sheep is still the film you’re associated with, and working with non-professional actors. “To Sleep with Anger” was the first time you had a professional cast. Could you talk about your working method and that transition?
Burnett: It was a real change for me. I had whole different way of working. With non-professionals, there’s a lot of time you have to allocate to getting what you want with them, but also you cast based on who they are, to bring out their real personalities. So it’s less about working on character and more about just getting them comfortable in front of the camera to be themselves, and understanding the process. For instance, they didn’t understand continuity, I remember one person asking if someone else could play his part one day because he was busy. It’s not like you’re playing football and you could put in a new quarterback.
One major change on “To Sleep with Anger” was that we had one week of rehearsal with the cast. We had to create a family with the actors.
Brooks: It really brought us together — I’m still friends with some of the actors today.
Burnett: But the process was the same on one hand. With non-professionals, you’re working with friends who know each other. It’s about familiarity and comfort in both approaches. In terms of the actors, they play roles and they may not be anything like the characters, but they’re able to reach that very quickly and give you more choices. With making a film like “To Sleep with Anger,” you’re working on a tighter schedule, so it helps to have that level of craft. There’s a clock ticking and you can count on them.
Richard, this was a unique project for you.
Brooks: It was. At that time there weren’t opportunities for African American actors to play roles like this, to have a family, dealing with everyday things, creating a three-dimensional character rather than just being a functional part of the storyline like a detective or criminal. This was much closer to my life. It allowed me to use more of my training as an actor, and to explore my range — simple things even like being able to touch a cup and feel it, to connect. Charles’ writing was so rich that we connected in the rehearsal process. All we had to do was trust the material.
The space for African American perspectives and narratives in 1990 was extremely narrow. Only certain films were being made, often reinforcing stereotypes.
Burnett: It was at UCLA I realized what I could do. We wanted to share the black perspective and find out what a black aesthetic was. We were shaped by the negativity in the films we were seeing. A number of us wanted to tell a different narrative. The Birth of a Nation created a lot of damage that continued in different ways. It dehumanized people. Coming up in the civil rights movement, you had to make a difference.
“To Sleep with Anger” has a strong folklore element.
Burnett: Coming from the South and growing up in L.A. where it was so segregated — worse than the South in many ways — all the people in my neighborhood were from the South. So you had that Southern cultured environment. The church was very important. And there were these folk ways that were there. I was always fascinated by these Southern stories, people would share these mystified experiences of the South. I wanted to talk about folklore.
Times were changing, drug culture was taking over South Central, and you could see the new generation was missing something, a direction. The sense of community is one thing. People were living in a vacuum after the Civil Rights Movement dispersed. Blacks from different classes were separated. The close-knit family which promoted responsibility was now a hole, and the folk tales and superstitions, which I hard rejected when I was younger, meant something.
Richard’s character has forgotten about the family’s roots, he represents that absence. It makes you vulnerable to Danny’s character, it’s a bit of a cautionary tale.
Babe Brother is really the principal character because he’s the one whose being swayed one way and another, that’s where the stakes lie. Your choices are the ones that matter most in the film.
Brooks: Babe Brother was a success story at the start of the film, he’s got a successful wife, a BMW, a child. But he finds himself at a crossroads. He’s moving up, but he’s questioning his responsibilities, not taking them seriously. He’s not participating in the family. So Harry preys on that, and taps into his insecurity and seduces him and that darkness seeps in.
Looking at the landscape now, there’s a lot more space for African American narratives. How do you see contemporary black cinema?
Burnett: A lot more needs to happen. There are advances in technology and enabling voices, but there are issues with the stories themselves. I think people of color are still not seen as human beings. They’re still associated with types, with comedy, but we’re in a crisis right now, with things like Black Lives Matter. We need films that address these issues. We need to be critical of the police and power structure, we need to stand back and solve these problems, and films need to point to that. There are too many stories that end happily and say very little about life.
When will we see another film from you?
Burnett: The problem with these career achievement awards is they suggest that I’m done. I don’t feel done. But it’s always a struggle.