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Charles Burnett: Big Money in Filmmaking Could Instead Be Used to ‘Improve the Lives of People’

The filmmaker reflects on "a unique moment in history," and the opportunities it presents social justice-minded artists.


Charles Burnett arrives at the 9th annual Governors Awards at the Dolby Ballroom

Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP

Around the nation, protesters continue to march against racial injustice, despite a deadly pandemic that has already ended more than 163,000 American lives, disproportionately affecting Black people. This has given rise to a vast American reckoning with racism, as countless episodes of police brutality against Black Americans, and protesters in general, are captured on video.

Director Charles Burnett has been documenting Black struggle for decades, and said he was optimistic about the filmmaking that could emerge from these tumultuous times.

“I look forward, hopefully, that something really amazing will come out of storytellers that talk about this particular period, because this is probably one of the most unusual periods that we’ve confronted in every respect,” he said. “With this pandemic, we don’t know at this moment who’s going to live or die. And it’s frightening in a way — the politics and everything behind it, and the fact that this diverse group who are protesting together about Black lives is very interesting and exciting.”

Burnett was part of a class of UCLA-trained members of a Black independent cinema movement of the late 1970s known as the “L.A. Rebellion” — Julie Dash, Billie Woodberry, Haile Gerima, and more — whose clear political and aesthetic foundation challenged Hollywood’s control over the Black image. Collectively they helped create an anti-racist cinema that introduced the country to humanizing depictions of Black people in the United States.

The 76-year-old filmmaker has yet to figure out his own response, but felt confident about the future. “There’s a lot of material out there,” he said. “So I look forward to filmmakers putting it all in perspective.”

Yet Burnett has been doing that himself for years, by capturing Black stories that would otherwise not make it to the screen. His slice-of-life “Killer of Sheep” (1978), and slow-burn masterwork “To Sleep with Anger” (1990) are among the greatest American movies of the past four decades. As a burgeoning filmmaker, Burnett was drawn to telling stories he knew from growing up in south central Los Angeles in the 1960s — a time, as he said, when art had meaning and purpose, and artists felt like they “owed it to everyone to make the world a better place.”

It’s an ethos that he continues to hold dear, even as he wrestles with the resources demanded by the filmmaking process. “One of the things that I always had problems with film is that it costs so darn much, and I wonder what I could have done with that money that would have actually changed things,” he said. “Particularly in L.A., where we have all these homeless people. And you have families that are poor and struggling, kids on the streets. It’s even more pronounced now with the pandemic.”

That thinking has renewed his resentment for the studio system. “These people in Hollywood are making huge amounts of money, and I think, ‘How can they not share that or want to put this money into improving the lives of people?'” he said. “There is a place for entertainment, I understand that. But at the same time, there’s an absurdity to it. I think one has to look at what we can do in our world.”

Currently, Burnett is developing multiple projects, including “Tanner’s Song,” about the man who mentored Bobby Kimball, the original lead singer of Toto. He’s also working on “Steal Away,” which tells the true story of Robert Smalls, a slave who stole a boat to carry himself, his family, and other slaves to freedom in 1862. It’s set up at Amazon Studios, though the filmmaker said the pandemic had slowed down the timeline. “It sort of slowed everything down and put everything on hold for a while,” he said. “We’re trying to work around that.”

Burnett may be in a holding pattern, but there is much to explore from his existing body of work. The roots of his cinematic ambition can be found in “Killer of Sheep,” about a slaughterhouse worker named Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), whose long hours on the job have failed to deliver the American dream. Stan represents the many Black Americans who’ve been disproportionately left behind by an expanding gap between rich and poor, in one of the world’s richest countries. And yet, somehow life goes on for most of them, like Stan.

“With Stan, it’s not a question of winning something or getting to the end, but surviving and sticking to your principles,” Burnett said. “And that’s what I liked about the fathers and people that I grew up looking up to. They came home every night, they worked hard, and they had this sense of what they were supposed to do as men. And no matter how bad things got, they continued on, and focused on family. If I can give them that, then I succeeded in a way.”

Many other Burnett films that has received far less attention continue to address modern times through historical struggles. These include “Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property” (2003) — about the leader of one of the bloodiest slave revolts in American history, in August 1831 — as well as “Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation” (2007) — the epic biography of Sam Nujoma, the leader of the 1960s South West Africa People’s Movement and the nation’s first president. The latter film charts the future leader’s political awakening and his part in the country’s fight for freedom from occupation by then Apartheid South Africa.

However, the most pertinent effort for the era of Black Lives Matter may be “The Glass Shield” (1994), a police drama based on a true story of corruption and racism within the Los Angeles police force — a powerful look at systemic racism in modern America.

Collectively, these works speak to centuries long global “Black struggle,” and more specifically, to the way American has always been at war with its own ideals. Today, the images of American streets burning, with fiery clashes between police and protesters, reveal the fault lines of race, politics and history that continue to divide Americans. Burnett speaks with authority when he addresses the seismic change at work.

“This is a unique moment in history, and it’s never going to be the same after this, especially with what this administration has done, and how it affected civil rights,” Burnett said. “If we’re really talking about making America great again, it’s those people that got their heads beaten in by the police, as they walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, those people who fought for equal rights, who fought to make sure that the less fortunate could still participate in life. And you see all that they’ve done being totally dismantled.” He added that a crucial aspect to national coverage of protests has been cell phone footage. “The tragedy of it all,” he said. “I’m just glad to see that it’s all being recorded.”

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