When Charles Burnett, 73, began making films at UCLA in the early 1970s, there was little to no infrastructure for independent feature filmmaking in America. When his final theatrical feature was released, in 1994, the burgeoning indie ecosystem no longer had room for the director’s culturally expressive, deeply humanistic brand of cinema.
Over the intervening 20 years Burnett made four of the most acclaimed and influential independent features of the modern era, while in the many years between projects he worked as a writer and technician on a number of his UCLA contemporaries’ own first films. This generation of artists, subsequently dubbed the L.A. Rebellion and including such names as Billy Woodberry, Haile Gerima, Julie Dash and Larry Clark, would soon forge a newly independent cinema in their own likeness: vivid, neorealist-inspired narratives centered on African-American life in Los Angeles, these singular films portray everyday dramas with a personal, poetic feel for the rituals and rhythms of the black suburban experience.
Burnett’s 1977 debut, Killer of Sheep, an unassumingly modest film following a slaughterhouse worker and his family through an episodic series of vocational and domestic travails in Watts, is widely considered the movement’s crowning achievement — though, like Burnett’s second film, 1983’s My Brother’s Wedding, it was never released theatrically in its time and was thus not widely seen outside the festival circuit until an overdue restoration in 2007. In the early ’90s, Burnett made tentative inroads toward more commercial filmmaking with To Sleep With Anger and The Glass Shield (distributed by the Samuel Goldwyn Company and Miramax, respectively, and featuring Danny Glover and Ice Cube among their ensemble casts). Both films played high-profile festivals and were well received upon opening, but neither attracted much of an audience, even among the black community. In the words of critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Burnett’s mainstream successes only increased his anonymity in the mainstream.”
In the years since, Burnett has continued to work, more prolifically than ever, in television and documentary. In 1996, he made a television film for Disney called Nightjohn, which was met with enthusiastic acclaim, and his subsequent work in nonfiction (Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property) and narrative filmmaking (Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation), while not widely seen, has continued to deepen his thematic preoccupations with African-American history and its fraught present-day permutations.
What does receiving an honorary Oscar mean to you, and what does it feel like to have your career honored by an institution like the Academy?
Let me put it this way: If it was a pleasant surprise for anyone it was a pleasant surprise for me! A shock, really. I still can’t believe it and I’m still kind of processing it. It came out of the blue. I don’t exactly have a new film in the running or anything, so for me it was more like, why? (Laughs.) But of course I’m very happy. I’m not turning anything down, that’s for sure! I make these small little independent films, and I’m just happy that people appreciate them. But I’m particularly happy for the actors in my films, and the people that I’ve worked with. Because they’ve stood by me and have given me a lot of support over the years. I’m really happy that their contributions can be rewarded.
I’m curious if you feel, in some small way, like you’ll be accepting this award on behalf of the generation of independent African-American filmmakers that you came up with at UCLA, artists whom you often collaborated with but who in many cases weren’t able to make more than one or two feature films?
Right, we all sort of came up together. We were all sort of making films en masse around the same time, and black independent film came up on its own during that period. We’d all lend each other support. I’m still in contact with many of the people I went to school with. We still call each other up and talk about the things we want to do. So with this award we kind of all share in that. I’m very happy for them as well.
You’ve lived almost the entirety of your life in Los Angeles, and many of your films have been set in South Los Angeles. What’s your relationship with Hollywood been like over the years, particularly when you were working on the periphery of the industry?
I sort of feel like I’m still on the periphery, in a way. I don’t necessarily make blockbuster films, you know. They have been reviewed quite well, but they’ve never really been commercially successful.
I’m sure Academy recognition must have been the furthest thing from your mind when you were starting out making features like Killer of Sheep, but was there a sense among your friends and collaborators that something important was going on in independent African-American cinema at that time, whether or not people were paying attention?
I think for us it was just working, whether or not it was successful. Just making a film was the important thing — getting your vision out there. And making a living, of course, was also important. I’ve always looked at working as a success. So in that sense I’ve never been disappointed or anything like that. I do wish I had made more films, or could have made more films. But I consider myself lucky in many ways, so I can’t complain.
You’ve more or less worked independently throughout your career. As you began to garner critical success, was there an urge to test your skills in mainstream Hollywood, or to continue to pursue filmmaking in the slightly more commercial vein of something like The Glass Shield? Or has your subsequent work in TV and documentary simply come down to opportunities.
It was opportunity, I think. Having an agent helps, of course. (Laughs.) They can place you in contention for certain projects and things like that. But there were other things [that precipitated the move away from theatrical filmmaking]: You start to raise a family, you buy a house, things like that. There’s a force that sort of moves you toward doing things that can make a living for you and your family. There’s also kids and tuition, student loans — these things are factors when making changes to your personal life.
In the last couple years the Academy’s taken steps to diversify its membership, resulting in last year’s best picture win for Moonlight, a film openly indebted to your work. Have you met Barry Jenkins? And how do you feel about the measures the Academy has taken to broaden their membership?
Yeah, I got to meet him on several occasions and he’s quite a nice guy –– a very talented guy. And there are a lot of other filmmakers like him that deserve attention. I think opening up the Academy has been great, so even a low-budget film can now do quite well compared to the big-budget films. I hope it gets more of these kinds of films financed, and hopefully proves that these small films can find an audience — that any film can be successful if you advertise it right. Moonlight is a good example of what independent film marketing can do. I’m very happy for him. He’s an unassuming guy that’s done quite well. There are many other talented filmmakers out there with good scripts, and I hope they can get the same kinds of opportunities.
Looking back do you feel like you paved the way in a sense for an independent filmmaker like Barry Jenkins to move so quickly from critical recognition to widespread embrace?
I think things on there own kind of made it all happen. Now there’s festivals like Sundance that make it possible to get these kinds of films recognition. So that’s been the biggest factor, I think. When we first got recognized it was from the European film festivals in Germany, France, Belgium –– places like that. That made it possible for us to get co-financing, and was a huge factor in making it possible for us to make films. Another factor has been the studios dissolving in a way that they’re no longer the only way to get a film shown. And I think for a new generation someone like Spike Lee is an important influence, as he was for us. He really put filmmaking on the map for people of color. He deserves a lot of credit as well.
What are you working on now?
Well there are a number of projects and scripts we’re trying to get funding for. But right now I’m trying to finish up a documentary on integrating hospitals, which we’ve been working on for a couple years now. It’s about the civil rights movement in terms of hospital care. We’re nearing postproduction and we’re trying to find finishing funds. We just have to do the narration and music and we’ll be done. — Jordan Cronk