Maybe it’s just part of being a successful artist: you’re proud of the work that made your reputation, but, being an artist, you want to put it behind you and move on to something new. Trouble is, your fans don’t want to let you. If you’re Sting, they sit in the back of the concert hall year after year and holier, “Roxanne!” If you’re Woody Allen, they buy tickets for each new film hoping it will be a remake of Annie Hall.
As frustrating as that kind of response must be for an artist, it could be forgiven in the case of the filmmaker Charles Burnett, whose early movies Killer of Sheep (1973) and My Brother’s Wedding (1983), share a subtlety largely missing in much of his more recent work. Sheep and Wedding managed the not inconsiderable feat of showing black families and communities with their uniqueness intact, and yet not allowing that uniqueness to devolve into the kind of stereotype that overshadows character. The people in those films and in Burnett’s masterpiece, To Sleep with Anger (1990), come across as black and human, not necessarily in that order. (This is all the more amazing in the case of the first two films – and is a testament to Burnett’s skill as a director – since the budgets for Sheep and Wedding did not even allow for professional actors.)
In Killer of Sheep, set in an impoverished neighborhood in South-Central Los Angeles, the main character is Stan, played by Henry Gayle Saunders. In the daytime Stan works in a slaughterhouse, surrounded by sheep, poor creatures neither responsible. for nor aware of the hideousness of their surroundings; nights and weekends, he hangs out with their human counterparts, friends and acquaintances too busy struggling to reflect on why they must struggle so. But Stan reflects; at least he has plenty of time to, since his frustration with the monotony and dreariness of his life has – in addition to making him emotionally distant from his wife and two children – turned him into an insomniac. (The film’s joke is that in the daytime Stan kills sheep, and at night he counts them.)
Killer of Sheep is virtually plotless, which bothered some reviewers upon its release but which actually goes along with the sleeping/waking theme. Stan’s true problem is not that he can’t get to sleep but that he seems to be in one long, tiresome dream from which he can’t rouse himself; episodes in the film, as in a dream, don’t conclude so much as blend into different episodes. In some Stan is a participant, in some an observer, in some not present at all. What ties them all together is the meanness of the characters’ lives, whether they are in the middle of a domestic dispute, on their way to put money on a horse, or in the process of cooking up a shady deal.
It is a blessing, given the period in which this film was made, that the idea for it did not enter the mind of a blaxploitation-film director (one of the creators of Hell Up in Harlem, Across 110th Street, and all the rest). If it had, Stan would surely get together with a couple of equally disgruntled buddies, buy some Saturday Night Specials, and take what was rightfully his from The Man. As it is, Stan has his temptations. A couple of thugs want him to go in on a job; a female liquor-store owner, not particularly attractive but certainly available, comes on to him. What makes Stan interesting and admirable is that, in an environment where decency is barely noticed, let alone rewarded, he passes up these little diversions.
And what saves Killer of Sheep from being a condescending, bleeding-heart little message of a movie (“Look at how these poor black people have to live! Isn’t it AWFUL?”) is Stan’s persistence, for all his moodiness, in finding small, simple things to appreciate. Sometimes even this backfires. Having coffee with a friend, he holds his mug to his cheek and says, “This remind you of anything?” After putting the mug to his own face, the friend says, “Nothing.” Stan then explains, in a wistful tone, that the heat on his cheek makes him think of the hot forehead of a woman with whom he is making love. “I don’t go for women with malaria,” the friend says, then proceeds to laugh derisively.
Sometimes, though, the little pleasures come through. When Stan’s young daughter looks out the door of their house at a sudden downpour and asks, “What makes it rain, Daddy?,” Stan answers, “The Devil’s beating his wife.” They both smile at this black southernism, a saying used when the sun shines during a rainstorm – a lovely event in the midst of dreariness, one that should be savored while it lasts. It is a moment that perfectly captures the spirit of Killer of Sheep, a small, quiet gem of a movie.
My Brother’s Wedding focuses on Pierce (Everett Silas), a thirty-something man who lives with his parents and works in their dry-cleaning store while he tries to ‘find’ himself. His parents (like Burnett’s) have southern origins and values, which include a strong work ethic. Pierce is both scornful and a little jealous of his brother and sister-in-law for their career success. My Brother’s Wedding deftly explores the irony of the generation gap as it applies to black people: while southernness (whether in cuisine, speech, or attitude) has traditionally been associated with blackness, the work ethic that goes with it is seen as Uncle Tom-ism by many younger blacks, who scoff at their peers’ attempts to make it in the ‘white’ world – and who assume that any black who does succeed has sold out. If, as the saying goes, there is a crime behind every great fortune, then in the view of black people like Pierce, there is a lack of integrity behind every successful African-American. Like Killer of Sheep, Wedding is subtly evocative of a particular aspect of black life, and it has something Sheep doesn’t have – an immediate conflict. When Pierce’s best friend is released from prison, Pierce is forced to choose, finally, between his upright family and his friend’s criminal ways.
While Wedding has a more identifiable conflict and a firmer grounding in black southern culture than Sheep, with To Sleep with Anger Burnett again outdid himself on both fronts, while making progress on a third – the enlistment of professional actors. To Sleep with Anger is the story of Suzie (Mary Alice) and Gideon (Paul Butler), a middle-class couple getting on in years. They have raised their grown sons (Carl Lumbly and Richard Brooks) in California, but they themselves are unaltered products of the South where they grew up. So deeply ingrained are their old traditions that Gideon confides to Suzie early in the film that he has misplaced his Toby, or personal good-luck piece. Coincidentally – or maybe not – the disappearance of the Toby is followed shortly by the appearance of Harry (Danny Glover), an acquaintance from Suzie and Gideon’s youth, who has come for a visit of indefinite length. Here begin the troubles.
To Sleep with Anger is a marvel of characterization and subtlety. Early on, Gideon tells a story to his young grandson, and at its conclusion the boy asks for another. “You tell me a story,” Gideon responds. The boy starts out, “Once upon a time…” and is cut short by the sound of the doorbell and Harry’s arrival. Touches like this can slip easily past the viewer, who understands them only in retrospect; the same relationship exists between Harry’s actions and Suzie, Gideon, and their family. Danny Glover’s Harry is a human version of Southern Comfort – he’s smooth and sweet, he puts you in a good mood, and Lord help you once the mood has passed. His manipulations come close to tearing the family apart.
So smooth is Harry – and so understated is this film – that the viewer who misses some key bits of dialog may miss altogether Harry’s purpose. But at one point, when Harry waxes personal to Suzie and then cannot resist pulling out a snapshot of his dead sons, he tips his hand: he has come to take away one of Suzie’s sons to replace his own. As it happens, one of them is ripe for the taking. The younger son, played by Richard Brooks, is a study in discontent. On the one hand, he bristles at the responsibilities that come with marriage and fatherhood; on the other, he resents the family in which he, as a grown man still called Babe Brother and even “boy,” is not always treated as an adult. Babe Brother’s every gesture is tinged with unhappiness, none more so than his smile, which serves only to put the grim cast of the rest of his features in relief. Babe Brother’s unhappiness and Harry’s exploitation of it are the building blocks for a fascinating, tension-filled story.
Adding nuance is Burnett’s visual style. This does not seem at first to be the case: with the exception of one sequence, for which the filmmaker is indebted to The Godfather (shots of a baptism are intercut with shots of Harry entering devious mode), To Sleep with Anger is typical Burnett, in that the shots are very straightforward. But they are, in fact, emphatically so, as if to underscore the difference between what you see and what you get: while the camera looks straight at Harry, Harry is anything but straight, answering with a riddle every question put to him. Here, visually speaking, Burnett goes the simplicity of, say, Killer of Sheep one better. The camera looks four-square at everything and everyone, as if setting up still photographs. For that matter, the camera, when not focusing on actual family photos, puts every character in a frame of a different sort – be it a doorway, a car window, the window of a house, the branches of a tree, or a shock of white hair. Everyone is made to look ready to be photographed, prepared for public viewing. Tension is thus created between appearance and reality. visually as well as thematically, To Sleep with Anger is a powerful piece of filmmaking.
Unfortunately, it was also a box-office disappointment. If Burnett felt frustrated by that, then perhaps – understandably – he set out to snare with his next film a wider audience than his critically acclaimed but ill-attended earlier movies had drawn. Or maybe he had another aim. “There’s something unique about different peoples and what they’ve experienced,” Burnett told The Christian Science Monitor in 1990. “The thing is to not reduce it, not trivialize it, but show what it is, and show its universality.” To be sure, Burnett’s first three films had achieved this goal as far as black people were concerned. He had shown, for those who didn’t already know it, that black people do indeed have something unique – a culture, in other words. He had shown many blacks’ rootedness in southern ways, and laced his films with jazz and blues tunes. Particularly in the case of Killer of Sheep, he had shed light on the tendency of blacks, as an oppressed people, to snatch joy from desperate situations – to improvise, a skill at the heart of jazz and blues, the music created by blacks. But maybe, after To Sleep with Anger, Burnett felt that this approach had run its course – that he had taken subtlety and understatement as far as he could, that it was time to make statements about black people, and race in general, in bolder terms.
Either reason, or both together, could logically have been behind Burnett’s 1995 film, The Glass Shield. This is a story about the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s office. But it is also a Charles Burnett film, and so the standard equipment of Hollywood cop movies – gore, steamy sex, high-speed chases, and more gore – are refreshingly absent. What takes their place is a statement about institutionalized corruption and racism and the need to maintain one’s integrity in the face of them. It is a statement that, while not novel, is well worth making, as it never hurts to be reminded of these things. As for making the statement in the form of a movie, that is not necessarily a bad thing, either. Drama and political message can dance well together, provided drama leads. Here, it struggles in vain to keep up.
Shield’s central character is J.J. Johnson (Michael Boatman), a wet-behind-the-ears graduate of the Sheriffs Academy and the first black deputy to join the Sheriffs office. When he pulls into the parking lot on the morning of his first day, not yet wearing his uniform, another deputy tells him that the space he’s pulled into is for employees only. Flashing his badge and a smile, J.J. says, “I am an employee.” The look on the white deputy’s face is one of alarm. The viewer sees this, but J.J. doesn’t – he has already rounded the corner and is off to begin his career of defending the citizenry. And so it goes: while the bright-eyed J.J. dreams of one day having the precinct named after him, signs of prejudice and worse proliferate around him. Before long J.J. is sucked into it. A racist white deputy stops a driver simply because he is black and behind the wheel of a nice car; J.J., as the deputy’s backup, finds a gun in the driver’s glove compartment; the gun is soon linked, rather conveniently, to a recent killing.
Later, as the driver faces a murder charge, J.J. perjures himself by saying that the driver was stopped for a legitimate reason, because of an illegal turn. He tells this lie for what he believes is the greater good, not knowing – as the viewer cannot help but know – that the black driver has been victimized from the start. And so it is necessary to wait for J.J. to discover, and the plot to confirm, what the tone of the film has suggested to us all along. We do not follow the story; it follows us. Michael Boatman, currently a gay mayoral aide on the sitcom Spin City, is an immensely appealing actor, and it is because of this that J.J. is not merely irritating. (Not to mention unbelievable. A black man in 1990s Los Angeles who joins the police force and is surprised by the racism he encounters?) One reacts to Boatman’s J.J. as to a good friend who is clueless on a particular issue. But Boatman’s performance is not enough to make The Glass Shield compelling.
Burnett managed a bit more dramatic power in Nightjohn, released late in 1996. Set in the antebellum South, this is the story of Sarny (Allison Jones), a twelve-year-old slave on the plantation of Clel Waller (Beau Bridges). Chiefly, it concerns Sarny’s relationship with John (Carl Lumbly, the older son in To Sleep with Anger) – a black man who has escaped slavery but has decided to become a slave again for the sake of teaching to read the other slaves he encounters. As with The Glass Shield, the message here – that literacy equals power for black people – is a worthy one, and the fact that the film was released in the middle of the recent Ebonics debate is, to say the least, interesting. But the message is hardly new, and in delivering it Burnett, maybe for the first time, stumbles into cliche: the conflict between the young, headstrong slave who wants freedom for himself and others, and the older one who warns that all this freedom talk will just get somebody killed.
Still, there is some of the old Burnett magic at work here. Clel Waller discovers that someone has forged passes to help two slaves escape; then a Bible, thought to have been merely misplaced, turns up in the slaves’ quarters. Waller reasons that whichever slave stole the Bible must be able to read and must therefore have forged the passes. The slave must be whipped as an example, and when Waller finds who he thinks is the guilty party, he gives the disciplinary assignment to his son, a young man not as progressive as he believes himself to be. When the son hesitates with the whip, the accused slave (Lorraine Toussaint) analyzes the reason why: he is torn, she says, between not wanting to displease his father and not wanting to end up like him. Hearing this, Clel Waller tells his son, “She’s readin’ you pretty good, boy.” There, from the mouth of this trader and mutilator of human beings, comes the sharp, Burnett-style observation: that, as important as literacy is, intelligence should not be measured solely by the ability to interpret words on paper, that there are many ways of analyzing what is in front of us, many ways of ‘reading.’
It is this kind of quietly powerful insight that is Charles Burnett’s real strength – not the brand of halfway-thought-out hollering best left to others (Oliver Stone and Spike Lee come to mind). Or, if it is the bold message that Burnett is now bent on sending, one hopes that he will continue to bolster it with the small, perfect moments that characterize his best work.