An interview with Charles Burnett

The following interview with director Charles Burnett took place June 28, 2001 in Richmond, Virginia during the shooting of the PBS documentary, Nat Turner, A Troublesome Property. The two-hour feature investigates the 1831 slave revolt that resulted in the violent deaths of slave owning families and the executions of Nat Turner and his co-conspirators. The script is multi perspective, Burnett explained, offering not only varied insights via diaries and interviews, but including six different Nat Turners, as perceived by historians and novelists over the years. The shoot was tight – ten days in Southampton, Hanover, and Albemarle Counties, Virginia — and is tentatively scheduled for a 2002 telecast.

Mr. Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1973, released in 1977) was a cornerstone of the eighties independent film explosion and was adopted in 1991 by the Library of Congress for inclusion in the National Film Registry. 1989’s To Sleep with Anger, with Danny Glover, was released to critical raves and in 1995 he directed Nightjohn, with Carl Lumley and Beau Bridges, for The Disney Channel. He is a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a grant from the MacArthur Foundation.

During the interview Burnett was relaxed – things were going well and he was enjoying working with producers Frank Christopher and Kenneth S. Greenberg. Over breakfast and iced tea, he reflected on Hollywood, Nat Turner and the South, independent film and his days at UCLA.

MJ: Charles, you moved at an early age from Mississippi to Los Angeles. Do you have any recollections about growing up in the segregated South?

CB: Well, not much, because you see we moved when I was so small. But everyone in my community was from the South. There was this southern environment in Los Angeles, California.

MJ: That reminds me of the neighborhood in To Sleep with Anger

CB: Well, somewhat. I think it talked about those things that are disappearing, sort of a cultural vacuum. Like there’s not really a community anymore, everyone’s kind of moving toward these materialistic values. And I wanted to talk about folklore and the old ways as having a strong influence once.

MJ: Things like the father in the family carrying tobeys and raising chickens…

CB: (nods his head) Now people don’t even know what it’s about. But I think it’s something they need – as a history or foundation.

MJ: You mentioned electrical engineering as an early career choice; how did you get your hands on your first camera?

CB: I must have been about fifteen or so, and I’d always wanted to do something with photography, but never had the opportunity. Well, a friend of mine had this camera, an 8 mm, and since I lived near the LA airport, the first thing I shot was an airplane flying overhead. It wasn’t until my twenties that I decided that it was what I’d like to do. Actually, I remember going to the movies a lot and noticing the camera work and thinking maybe this was something I’d like to do. But at the time it was very hard to break into Hollywood since there were unions and to get in you had to be a relative of someone’s. If I’d known more about it, what it took to make a living, I doubt I would have gone into it like I did. But I was so naïve, thinking that was it. Now you know, it’s strange because you realize it wasn’t what you expected. You have to be really passionate about it, and hope that at one point you can make a living at it, which is very rare. There’s just so much politics and frustration, you have to really want to say something. But now with the new technologies, things should get easier. So if you have something to say, that’s really the way to go. Because Hollywood’s not really about that.

MJ: When did you realize it was not about “that”?

CB: I think with To Sleep with Anger. I was very lucky to have Edward R. Pressman and Cotty Chubb — who are these very independent-friendly producers. But the problem there was budgetary. The problem inherent in making films commercially is that once you start production, you’re in a rat race. And it’s steamrolling, it’s behind you and it’s on your heels all the time. Your object is to stay ahead – it’s the art of compromise, quite simply. You learn to shoot quickly if you want to survive. Yet you have a vision of things that’s compromised by time and money.

For example, you have two or three locations you really want to use that have to be shot on the same day. But if they’re all not in a certain proximity or usable for more than that just one scene, you might have to abandon that. You have to find a location that serves several scenes and that sort of sacrifices the original look you had in your head.

And within these limitations you’re supposed to do creative work. If you could take the time to go here and shoot, and then there, and the next one, but it’s very costly to have that luxury. Anytime you’re using someone else’s money, time becomes an issue – and you become obligated, to some extent, to their needs. That is, they have to get some kind of financial return. But if you’re doing your own movie and got the budget from friends or grants, you can really do whatever you want.


Charles Burnett's "Killer of Sheep."


MJ: I wanted to ask you about two historically important African-American productions, Gordon Parks’ The Learning Tree (’69) and Melvin van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Badassss Song (’71). Did they have any influence in making Killer of Sheep?

CB: No, I’d already decided what film I was going to make before then. I had shot it but kept it in the can, because I was trying to make another film which didn’t happen. It seemed to me that the whole idea was that what you made was a response to Hollywood.

MJ: You mean, in response to the “blaxploitation” flicks of the seventies?

CB: No, even before that; I’m thinking of Poitier and people like him. It was a way that the black image was put on screen that just wasn’t very representative. And that’s some of what we were facing. When I went to film school later, at UCLA, there were very few black filmmakers. But the instructor, Elyseo Taylor, founded a school within a school of African, Hispanic and Asian American students; I remember I was a teaching assistant. Anyway, in that class were student filmmakers predisposed to the issues of race, politics and Hollywood. Out of that came a discussion of what was representative of blacks, Muslims, Hispanics and Asians on screen. So when … Sweetback… came out, well, not so much … Sweetback … but with Gordon Park’s The Learning Tree, it didn’t go far enough. Which was a shame because it was a very positive film. But it was the sixties, we were shaped by a revolutionary type of thing.

MJ: Did Parks’ film strike you as being naïve?

CB: Very tame, especially at a time when students were calling for militant action. But …Sweetback … was a problem. A lot of us looked at movies as an art form as well, and even though van Peebles had this character we could identify with to some extent, he was certainly a different kind of character. He was a survivor of course, but it seemed we were sort of caught between things.

MJ: Well, … Sweetback … had some definite “ploitation” elements.

CB: It did. At that time the whole “blaxploitation” thing was starting to dominate the black screens – Fred Williamson, Jim Kelly, and Jim Brown was part of that as well. These sort of gangsterish films… they shared a sort of sameness.

MJ: Charles, you know that you are one of the few black directors that was never a performer first, that is, on the other side of the camera as actor, singer, stand-up or athlete. Poitier starred in many films before he directed. I always thought he was so popular with white audiences because he was always so civil, so refined.

CB: Strangely enough , looking back at Poitier’s work there’s nothing embarrassing. The roles he portrayed are very positive and oddly enough more representative than most of the films made today. Mostly because of this fixation on violence. It all seems kind of narcissistic…more a reflection of the filmmaker and the producers, you know how they want to be perceived. I’m not being very clear… but it’s not about trying to tell a story…about something significant, about life. Instead, it’s about them.

MJ: Self-indulgent perhaps?

CB: Yes, they’re just like kids with a toy. Their films don’t say anything except to themselves, because it’s such an extension of them. They say nothing about reality except how that relates to their fantasy.

MJ: Well, that critique could certainly be applied to … Sweetback …

CB: Sure, in a way, but I’m thinking of the more recent, violent films. Who cares about making films about humanity? Because that’s the hard part.

MJ: Thinking back through the nineties, how about John Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood (1991), I thought that was quite positive.

CB: Well, somewhat, but it was a very dangerous film in a way.

MJ: How so?

CB: Mainly because of its lengthy generalization on the responsible, absentee father and because it simplified things to a large degree. Governor Pete Wilson of California saw it and said that every black man should see it. The reason why? Because black fathers have abandoned their kids? Single-parent families are not the single cause of the problems of the black community.

MJ: Well it’s certainly symptomatic, don’t you think?

CB: Of course, parents should take more responsibility, but you have to go back and examine the institutions of slavery and segregation; so it’s that, coupled with this and a whole bunch of other issues. That’s the problem – it’s not so simple.

MJ: What you just said reminds me of your films. They’re hard to pinpoint, because a lot can happen, a lot of it just under the surface. Your films also have a warm, personal touch but are still somewhat detached.

CB: It’s about trying not to impose your values. I try to depict, in a matter-of-fact way, what exists in the black community. Kind of a slice-of-life.

MJ: How hard is it to write without being preachy or didactic?

CB: It’s not hard. I think you have to be aware of your limitations, making you more concerned about the characters as real people. They have to tell the story and their background and choices are different. It’s a little like, I think I may have mentioned this before, a book I admire a lot – James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. He traveled the South with Walker Evans, documenting, constantly talking about his involvement. Even his observations become part of the scene, and he’s aware of that. The whole idea is to observe something without manipulating it. At the same time, you’re trying to find this area to hang on to and tell a story, while trying to keep that distance.

MJ: That’s one of the beautiful things I find in Killer of Sheep – managing to keep your distance although the material is obviously very close, very heartfelt. Why did it take so long to get a screening and how did it finally happen?

CB: It first showed at a conference, and then through word-of-mouth was included as part of a black independent film package, organized by Oliver Franklin and Phil Bowser. It sat in the can awhile, and then it took me a while to edit. The whole idea behind it was to make a film about how some people in the black community really lived without imposing my values on it. And when the film was made, I thought, well, that’s it. Because we didn’t have the distribution venues they have today. It wasn’t until the eighties that the European festivals and press started showing and writing about black film, and then they began to show here. The only distributors in the early seventies was Churchill or Janus; the only art house in LA was The Los Feliz . Outside of that, there were no means to distribute your film. It wasn’t until later when the theatres were hurting and began showing pornography and other stuff did some of these independent films find a screen.

MJ: Killer of Sheep has been compared to the Italian neo-realist films. You’d seen Rossellini and de Sica in film school – were they an influence?

CB: I had, but I didn’t really set out to make a film like the Italians. It was just a need to try to get at the truth. As I mentioned earlier, that whole issue of Hollywood and the misrepresentation of black people in film — with Gone with the Wind and Stepin Fetchit — well, the idea was to get at the truth of the representation. In that respect, it was neo-realist.

More important was a documentary class I had in film school with Basil Wright. That was a turning point. I remember specifically a screening of Song of Ceylon (1934) produced by the rubber industry that was exploiting the people and situation he was there to film. And he had to deal with that. Because humanity is the object; it’s all about trying to explain the world.

MJ: His situation was similar to Robert Flaherty’s agreement with Standard Oil, for whom he made The Louisiana Story (1948). That’s probably good training for any filmmaker, learning to balance the creative with business.

CB: (smiles) Oh, yeah.

MJ: Charles, hasn’t distribution been the hurdle of independent makers historically?

CB: Sure, just as we discussed earlier, but things have changed. Then, you had some art houses and midnight shows but that was about it. When I started in film I knew then that it wasn’t going to be a lifetime career. I worked and relied on grants to support my films. Now, some filmmakers have even “four-walled” (leased) theatres for a run. That goes back to Oscar Micheaux …

MJ: He was part of my next question…

CB: He took his film under his arm from town to town. So there was a model for doing that. But you know it’s expensive and it’s another whole thing to have to deal with.

MJ: Another job in itself!

CB: A huge job. But you know it’s been done recently — Haile Gerima did it with Sankofa (in 1993). It was real four-walling, but it’s very time consuming, you have to have someone counting tickets and all that.

MJ: But the spirit and the hustle that you have to have as an independent, Micheaux had. For that reason I often teach him as the “Father of American independent film.”

CB: Yeah, here’s this guy in the in the Dakotas in the 1920s selling his novel (The Homesteader) door-to -door. He was a real entrepreneur – it’s really pretty remarkable if you think about it, for the times. Remember the brothers Johnson (of the Lincoln film company) wanted to do his book, but he wanted to do it himself . (Laughs) Anyway, here’s a person able to move very successfully from one medium to another. Making and distributing film, but also making films that were very relevant. He probably had some of the best subject matter – one can object to that whole color thing he was preoccupied with, you know light skin good and dark skin bad – yet these issues were very important to black audiences.

MJ: Interracial marriage took the commercial industry sixty years to deal with, if you think of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? in what 1966 or ’67? Unfortunately, many of Micheaux’ titles have been lost over the years.

CB: Yeah, and the thing that’s very interesting is that his characters weren’t clowns or buffoons, that they were above all that. The University of Indiana in Bloomington has established a sort of black film archives, and it probably has some Oscar Micheaux and I know that UCLA’s archives is desperately trying to preserve any and every film it can get ahold of.

MJ: As far as the average viewer is concerned, there might be a copy of Micheaux’ 1924 Body and Soul, starring Paul Robeson, available, but that’s about it.

CB: You know who shows Micheaux’ films during Black History month? Ted Turner.

MJ: I wasn’t aware of that. Charles, in putting together To Sleep with Anger, how pivotal was Danny Glover’s presence?

CB: Well, we had part of the money before Danny. You know in order to get people interested, you often need a star, someone salable. It was more a matter of getting enough money without having to go to too many sources. But Danny’s presence certainly helped when it came to distribution.

MJ: Goldwyn was criticized for the way they handled the release. What do you remember about that?

CB: Well, number one, we talked to them about ways to involve the black community, but they didn’t listen. Number two, I don’t think they understood the film; they even mentioned changing the name. We had test screenings for black audiences and the responses were very positive – but they couldn’t take advantage of it. And their budget for marketing was tiny. I remember they claimed they spent all the money in Atlanta.

MJ: Is that where the film opened?

CB: Yeah. For some reason they wanted to open in Atlanta and then branch out. But that didn’t work so well, and then all the money was gone. Oh yeah, I remember they had these crazy ideas to generate press, you know, something conflictual, like me getting in a public argument with Spike Lee. We’d told them to target black audiences by advertising in church publications and things like that. Finally it played in theatres in other cities that weren’t so accessible for the black community.

MJ: I remember getting a two-week run out of Say Amen, Somebody (1982 documentary on gospel singing) at the Biograph Theatre in Richmond by sending dozens of flyers to black churches.

CB: You know Haile’s film and Julie Dash’s film (Daughters of the Dust, 1991) proved that if you advertise selectively and make people aware, they’ll show up.

MJ: When you attended the James River Film Festival here in 1999 you mentioned that you always had several projects in development. How important is it to be flexible, to be ready to go in this direction or that one?

CB: You have to be able to juggle a lot of things at once, and you spend a lot of time hustling. Remember that when I was here two years ago I was talking about the Nat Turner thing we’re doing now. We really only got part of the money we need, but we were lucky to get it, so we decided to go ahead and do the Virginia locations. You have projects start and stop, gates opening and closing. It’s easy sometimes to lose interest gradually in a project, but you have to keep that spark alive, cause something might happen. You have to get 5, 6, or 10 things out there. Kind of like fishing – throw out your net and you might catch something.

MJ: Charles, there’s been a lot of talk about democratization in the digital era – what’s your take on the changes we’ll be seeing?

CB: It’s gonna change – the new technology is affecting everybody. Anyone can make a movie and put it on his web site, so you can bypass conventional distribution channels. But it’s still going to take a story and some talent. Seems there’s a lot out there that just doesn’t hold people’s interest . But there’s also a lot of talented filmmakers who are thoroughly intimidated by the whole Hollywood thing — you know, the stress, the compromise – the fact that you have to get this actor and the story has to have a certain element in it that sells. You can shoot on DV and if it doesn’t come out right, shoot again. So the savings compared to shooting film are phenomenal. We’re shooting Nat Turner, A Troublesome Property on Hi-Def. All those processes involved with film in post-production are so much easier on digital. Just get yourself an inexpensive editing system like Final Cut Pro, it does almost everything an Avid can do. They have titles and music you can choose, so for less than $10,000 you can have a production house.

MJ: To get off the subject a bit, I’ve been meaning to ask if Hitchcock ever visited UCLA while you were there? I understand he was fond of screening his films for classes.

CB: Well, no, not Hitchcock but I remember Josef von Sternberg and King Vidor coming. I worked at an agency who handled Hitchcock and I would see him quite often; in fact, I used to pick up and deliver his films from storage. He was a guy who loved to talk about his movies. He could remember all of his set ups! I can’t recall any of mine. Once I actually went to his house for a deposition, to be a witness; he was involved in some kind of legal thing, and I saw his closet-the same black suits and white shirts without variation!

MJ: He often remarked that once a film was storyboarded, the movie was basically over for him. Do you feel similarly?

CB: No, it’s always a struggle – trying to get this right and that right, always compromising — you know, playing games really.

MJ: Of all your films, which do you consider to be the best realized, or the most satisfying?

CB: (pauses) Well, I had a lot of fun making a short, called When It Rains (1995). A bunch of us got in a VW bus with a camera and just shot stuff. It was real life, and we didn’t have to deal with all these other problems that commercially come before the aesthetic.

MJ: Was Nightjohn, done for the Disney Channel in 1996, your most comfortable budget?

CB: I think so. I admire Disney for doing the film, for depicting the practice of slavery realistically. But at the same time they free things up, they have all these oddball conditions. For instance, we couldn’t use a shot of an older slave’s hands holding down a younger’s as he was being whipped. And the rabbit — we could show a rabbit dead, roasting over the fire — but not being shot by the owner’s son. So the shot of the rabbit roasting on the slaves’ fire is out-of-context, since we couldn’t show how they acquired the rabbit. Things like that. But these are the compromises you make day-to-day. You just have to be prepared for it.

MJ: Charles, before we run out of time, let’s talk about Nat Turner, A Troublesome Property. As the leader of the only successful slave insurrection, Nat Turner has over the years, emerged as a hero for African-Americans. How will the film resolve that Nat Turner with the man responsible for the violent deaths of over sixty people, most of them women and children?

CB: That’s the problem. And it’s a very big problem, but the reasons are complex. You have to consider the institution of slavery, his frustration with his situation, and his separation from his family.

MJ: In William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner, he was made out to be a religious mystic, and a celibate. I remember that angered many black historians and activists at the time.

CB: Of course it did. You have to realize that Styron took great liberties with history and that history was very important to black people. Ossie Davis told me that he heard stories of Nat Turner growing up as a child in Atlanta. Also many people don’t realize that Turner had a wife and was very loyal to her – Styron had him lusting after a slaveowner’s daughter.

MJ: In particular, robbing Turner (as an ascetic) of his sexuality angered the black intellectual community…

CB: Certainly. Many people don’t realize that it was James Baldwin who really urged Styron to write the book, and was in fact living in a cottage behind Styron’s house in Connecticut while he was writing it. You know, the whole thing is still very controversial. We thought about a location, there in Southhampton, near the Turner museum, but it took too long to get permission to shoot. There’s still this tension.

But we did get a descendant of Turner’s to shake hands with a descendant of one of the victim’s. And we’ve talked with Styron, he’s supportive of the project; in fact, he may watch us shoot. Maybe the film will help bring a sense of closure to everyone involved.

MJ: Quickly, Charles, who is your favorite actor or actress to work with?

CB: Well, they’re all good, all professional. When you do casting, you really find that there’s a lot of talent out there. I’d like to work with all of them.

MJ: We’re out of time. Charles, thanks so much.

CB: My pleasure.

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