Charles Burnett

Namibia: The Struggle for Freedom and Nightjohn, Director

Personal Information

Born Charles Burnett, 1944, Vicksburg, Mississippi; father in the military, mother a nurse's aide, raised by grandmother; married Gaye Shannon- Burnett; two sons, Steven and Johnathan. Education: B.A., M.F.A. in film, University of California at Los Angeles.


Filmmaker. Wrote and directed Killer of Sheep (finished 1974, released 1978), The Horse (short film - late 1970s), My Brother's Wedding (1983), To Sleep with Anger (1990), The Glass Shield (1995), Nightjohn (made- for-television film, 1996). Wrote screenplay for Bless Their Little Hearts (1984). Directed television documentary America Becoming (1991).

Life's Work

Since the late 1960s, Charles Burnett has been making highly-acclaimed films about the experience of African Americans. Burnett's films have been shown at festivals throughout the world, and have received several prestigious awards; still, most American moviegoers have never seen his films or heard of him. According to Bernard Weinraub, writing in the New York Times, many critics refer to Burnett as "the nation's least-known great filmmaker" and "most gifted black director."

As an independent filmmaker, Burnett has total control over his projects: he writes, casts, directs, and often even shoots his own films. "Most of the films I like to do aren't very commercial.... They're character-driven and theme-driven," Burnett told Weinraub. However, because financing for non-commercial projects is difficult to find, Burnett has made only four full-length films throughout his long career. "I never really call myself a filmmaker because of the fact that it's so infrequent that I do it, like every couple of years," Burnett continued.

Despite the fact that Burnett has completed so few projects, he is extremely well-respected in the arts community. His films Killer of Sheep (1974) and To Sleep with Anger (1990) have been designated as "national treasures" by the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. Burnett has received grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the J.P. Getty Foundation, as well as a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur "genius" grant in 1988.

According to David Nicholson, writing in the Washington Post, Burnett's films "are conscious attempts to make art--in the sense of rendering experience truthfully and faithfully--instead of entertainment....While eminently accessible, Burnett's are not easy films. He does not condescend to his audience with Hollywood conventions....His characters are real people in real situations, trying, as all of us must, to work out their destinies."

As for Burnett, he has no patience with moviegoers--particularly African Americans--who want to see escapist Hollywood blockbusters. "...the black male is an endangered species, we are among the underclass....And someone says, "Well, I want to see a movie that doesn't say anything,'" he was quoted as saying in the Washington Post. "That's stupid! It's like someone participating in their own genocide."

Charles Burnett was born in 1944 in Vicksburg, Mississippi; his mother was a nurse's aide, his father was in the military. When Burnett was three, the family moved to Los Angeles, settling in the predominantly black neighborhood of Watts. A short time afterward, Burnett's parents separated, and he and his brother were raised by their grandmother.

In the years after World War II, many African Americans, like the Burnetts, had moved from the rural South to large northern cities. As a result, the Los Angeles community where he grew up was "Southern in culture," Burnett told the Washington Post. Burnett's upbringing had a strong influence on his films, which often combine Southern folklore with contemporary themes. "A lot of traditions were carried on, and storytelling was one," Burnett was quoted as saying in the Washington Post. "I think it's important to have your own stories. It's important for kids to model themselves after--to have images of...what's right and wrong."

While many of Burnett's films stress the importance of community, as a child he often felt excluded because he stuttered when he spoke. Burnett has speculated that his stutter may have contributed to his desire to become an artist. "...maybe because I have a serious speech impediment, I always felt like an outsider--an observer--who wasn't able to participate because I couldn't speak very well," he was quoted as saying in Black American Literature Forum. "So this inability to communicate must have led me in a certain direction--to try to find some other means to express myself and my concerns."

As a young man, Burnett did not find much support for his artistic ambitions. "I was always interested in arts," Burnett told the Washington Post. "But my community wasn't interested in arts. You had to do something concrete, you had to make a living." Burnett initially tried to live up to these expectations by enrolling at Los Angeles Community College to study electronics. Once he took a course in creative writing, however, he realized that he wanted to become an artist of some kind. In 1965, he left the community college and enrolled in the film program at the University of California at Los Angeles, where he earned a B.A. and then an M.F.A.

As a student at UCLA, Burnett met and worked with other African American film students. Years later, this group of filmmakers came to be called the "L.A. Rebellion," a term which Burnett dislikes: "It wasn't a 'school' of black filmmakers, or a conscious effort," he was quoted as saying in Black American Literature Forum.

At the time, independent films--and particularly those made by African Americans--had very little chance of being picked up for distribution. As a result, Burnett has said, he and his fellow students were freed from any pressure to be commercial. "We were convinced that there wasn't any outlet for our work. So we had a chance to indulge a little bit and be creative and say what we wanted," Burnett was quoted as saying in Black American Literature Forum.

For his master's thesis, Burnett wrote and directed Killer of Sheep, which later would earn him international acclaim. Set in Watts, Killer of Sheep is a stark family drama about an unemployed slaughterhouse worker who tries to remain a good husband and father. The project took five years to complete--partly because Burnett has promised a role to a friend who was serving time in prison, and continually failed to make parole. The black and white film, which was made for less than $10,000, was finally completed in 1974, but was not released commercially until 1978. In the meantime, Burnett had completed a short film, The Horse.

Burnett initially received recognition as a filmmaker in Europe, particularly after Killer of Sheep won the Critics' Prize at the 1981 Berlin Film Festival. While Burnett appreciated the critical acclaim--"It gave me the sense that the films I had made were real films," he told Black American Literature Forum--it was painful to be ignored in his own country. "For a black person, who is already aware of the fact that he or she is an outsider (in his or her own country), it is a doubly frustrating situation," Burnett was quoted as saying in Black American Literature Forum.

Killer of Sheep is "a brilliant work," Tony Gittens, director of the Black Film Institute at the University of the District of Columbia, told the Washington Post. "As film-as-art, it was just wonderful, but it also captured an authenticity of his community." Years later, in 1990, Killer of Sheep would be among the 50 films designated as "national treasures" by the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress--along with such well-known movies as Citizen Kane and The Godfather.

Burnett's next film, My Brother's Wedding--his first feature to be shot on 35mm film stock--was released in 1983. My Brother's Wedding, a comedy-drama, tells the story of a young black man torn between self- destructive street life and pretentious upward mobility.

Like Killer of Sheep, My Brother's Wedding was done on a shoestring budget, and featured non-professional actors, including Burnett's wife, Gaye Shannon-Burnett, a costume designer. While both Killer of Sheep and My Brother's Wedding have been criticized for the amateurish acting, the films themselves have received consistently positive reviews. "Despite its rough edges, this is an impressive effort," Clifford Terry of the Chicago Tribune wrote about My Brother's Wedding.

Even as the accolades rolled in, Burnett struggled to make ends meet. While applying for grants to make his films, he worked as a scriptreader and messenger for a Los Angeles talent agency, wrote screenplays and did cinematography for friends' films, and even painted houses or mowed lawns when necessary.

In 1988, Burnett was awarded a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation award, commonly known as a "genius" grant. The grant-- $275,000 paid over five years, with no strings attached--is intended to free gifted individuals to pursue their own projects. When Burnett found out about the award--for which an artist has to be nominated by someone else--"I was at rock bottom," he told the Washington Post. A docudrama project for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting had just fallen through. "I was totally bankrupt, totally no money." Burnett used the grant to support himself and his family--he and his wife have two sons, Steven and Jonathan--while working on his third major film, To Sleep with Anger. Investors put $1.4 million into the film, "which by Hollywood standards is cab fare," David Mills wrote in the Washington Post. Still, it was a huge amount compared to the cost of My Brother's Wedding, which cost just $80,000.

To Sleep with Anger--set in South Central Los Angeles, like most of Burnett's films--is a dark comedy that combines Southern folklore with contemporary family drama. To Sleep with Anger was Burnett's first project to feature professional actors, including Danny Glover. Glover was initially asked to play a small role in the film, but was so enthusiastic that he agreed to play a major role for a reduced fee, and even invested money in the production.

To Sleep with Anger won the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 1990, and, like Killer of Sheep, was named a national treasure by the Library of Congress. However, the film performed poorly at the box office, even among African American audiences. Burnett attributed the problem to poor distribution--but also blamed the movie industry as a whole, which dulls the public taste for thought-provoking films. "It's not a question of culture, it's a question of trying to control those dollars," Burnett told the Washington Post.

Burnett's next project was to direct a made-for-television documentary, America Becoming. Financed by the Ford Foundation, the program focused on ethnic diversity in the United States, and particularly the relationship between recent immigrants and other racial groups. While working on the documentary, Burnett has said, he was shocked by the lack of self-esteem among the African Americans he interviewed. "...the hope of being able to accomplish something, and self-esteem itself, is totally missing from the black community now," he told Black American Literature Forum. "One of the kids we interviewed said, 'We're going the way of the American Indians.'"

Burnett's next full-length feature film was The Glass Shield, a police drama inspired by a true story. In the film, a black rookie cop who wants to fit in takes part in the wrongful arrest and prosecution of a black man, played by rap artist Ice Cube. According to Michael Sragow, writing in the New York Times, The Glass Shield was Burnett's first real attempt to appeal to a wider audience.

Burnett's most recent project was Nightjohn, a made-for-television special that was shown on the Disney channel in June of 1996. Based on a novel by Gary Paulsen, Nightjohn tells the story of a black man who escapes slavery, learns to read, and returns to the South to find his family and teach others. "It's about education and the price people paid for it," Burnett told the Atlanta Journal- Constitution. As of January of 1997, Burnett was working on a documentary about the Reconstruction era, helped by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Burnett hopes his films will serve as an inspiration to the black community. "Self-esteem has to be rebuilt," he was quoted as saying in Black American Literature Forum. "And very few films contain things that could inspire their audiences--such as real heroes-- everyday people who accomplish something and make sacrifices, real people you can applaud....We need stories dealing with emotions, with real problems like growing up and coming to grips with who you are; movies that give you a sense of direction, an example."


Louis B. Mayer Award, UCLA; Critics' Prize, 1981 Berlin Film Festival, for Killer of Sheep; John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur "genius" grant, 1988; Special Jury Prize, 1990 Sundance Film Festival, for To Sleep with Anger; grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the J. P. Getty Foundation; Killer of Sheep and To Sleep with Anger designated as "national treasures" by the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress