Bless Their Little Hearts 
Please join Cultivate Cinema Circle and Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center as we celebrate the work of Charles Burnett. Our second selection is a one-night screening of Bless Their Little Hearts , written by Burnett and directed by Billy Woodberry. The film was named to the National Registry of the Library of Congress in 2013.
- Screening Date: Thursday, July 20th, 2017 | 7:30pm
- Venue: Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center
- Specifications: 1984 / 80 minutes / English / Black & White
- Director(s): Billy Woodberry
- Print: Supplied by Milestone Films
- Tickets: $8 general, $6 students & seniors, $5 members
341 Delaware Ave, Buffalo, NY 14202
Courtesy of the film’s website:
Bless Their Little Hearts, a landmark of American independent cinema will open Wednesday, May 17 for exclusive theatrical engagements at IFC Center. Named to the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress, the films represent a high-water mark from the “L.A. Rebellion,” a group of African-American filmmakers who came out of UCLA in the 1960s-1980s that also included Haile Gerima (Sankofa) and Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust). Director Billy Woodberry will appear in person for post-screening Q&As on the opening night of the engagement.
Billy Woodberry’s Bless Their Little Hearts (1983), written and shot by Burnett and starring Killer of Sheep’s Kaycee Moore, chronicles the devastating toll that joblessness takes on a married couple and their children. Added to the National Film Registry in 2013, “Part of the vibrant New Wave of independent African-American filmmakers to emerge in the 1970s and 1980s, Billy Woodberry became a key figure in the movement known as the L.A. Rebellion. Woodberry crafted his UCLA thesis film, “Bless Their Little Hearts,” which was theatrically released in 1984. The film features a script and cinematography by Charles Burnett. This spare, emotionally resonant portrait of family life during times of struggle blends grinding, daily-life sadness with scenes of deft humor. Jim Ridley of the “Village Voice” aptly summed up the film’s understated-but- real virtues: “Its poetry lies in the exaltation of ordinary detail.”
- Berlin International Film Festival – 1984 – Winner: Interfilm Award – Otto Dibelius Film Award (Forum of New Cinema)
- Berlin International Film Festival – 1984 – Honorable Mention: OCIC Award (Forum of New Cinema)
- Toronto International Film Festival – 1984
- National Film Preservation Board – 2013 – National Film Registry
Bless Their Little Hearts represents the closure and pinnacle of a neorealist strand within what’s now described as the L.A. Rebellion, which dates to Charles Burnett’s Several Friends (1969). Billy Woodberry’s film chronicles the devastating effects of underemployment on a family in the same Los Angeles community depicted in Killer of Sheep (1977), and it pays witness to the ravages of time in the short years since its predecessor. Nate Hardman and Kaycee Moore deliver gutwrenching performances as the couple whose family is torn apart by events beyond their control. If salvation remains, it’s in the sensitive depiction of everyday life, which persists throughout.
By 1978, when Bless’ production began, Burnett, then 34, was already an elder statesman and mentor to many within the UCLA film community, and it was he who encouraged Woodberry to pursue a feature-length work. In a telling act of trust, Burnett offered the newcomer a startlingly intimate 70-page original scenario and also shot the film. He furthermore connected Woodberry with his cast of friends and relatives, many of whom had appeared in Killer of Sheep, solidifying the two films’ connections.
Yet critically, he then held back further instruction, leaving Woodberry to develop the material, direct and edit. As Woodberry reveals, “He would deliberately restrain himself from giving me the solution to things.” The first-time feature director delivered brilliantly, and the result is an ensemble work that represents the cumulative visions of Woodberry, Burnett and their excellent cast.
Whereas Burnett’s original scenario placed emphasis on the spiritual crisis of Hardman’s Charlie Banks, the then-married Woodberry, alongside Moore and Hardman, further developed the domestic relationships within the film and articulated the depiction of a family struggling to stay alive in a world of rapidly vanishing prospects.
In retrospect, the film’s ending can be seen as a spiritual goodbye not just for Banks, but for Burnett, who would move away from his neorealist work with his next film, the classic To Sleep With Anger (1990); for Woodberry, who moved into documentary; and for Hardman, who left cinema shortly after. The film remains an unforgettable landmark in American cinema.
- Restoration by UCLA Film & Television Archive.
- Restored by Ross Lipman in consultation with Billy Woodberry
- 35mm Picture Restoration by The Stanford Theater Film Laboratory and Fotokem
- Restored from the original 16mm b/w negative A/B rolls and the original 16mm optical soundtrack
- With funding by The National Film Preservation Foundation and The Packard Humanities Institute
- Sound Restoration by Audio Mechanics
- Sound Transfers by NT Picture and Sound
- Special Thanks: Charles Burnett, Allyson Field, Sean Hewitt, Jan-Christopher Horak, Shawn Jones, John Polito, Jacqueline Stewart, Dave Tucker, Danielle Faye, Todd Wiener
- Digital restoration (cleanup, stabilization, de-flicker) by Re-Kino, Warsaw, Poland. DCP by DI Factory, Warsaw.
- Funding by Milestone Film & Video
Courtesy of film’s website:
Born in Dallas in 1948, Billy Woodberry is one of the founders of the L.A. Rebellion film movement.
I was born in a big county hospital — Parkland… They were thinking of maybe knocking it down, but they decided to preserve it. So I’m glad. And when I was born, we lived in North Dallas on Roseland and that’s important to me because shortly after, I think, we moved to a big housing project on the far, south side of town, the end of the street corner. So I actually grew up there, but I kind of imagined what it would have been like if I would have stayed in North Dallas with my original people, you know? (Laughs) North Dallas is an old part of town. The first high school was in that part of town, my mother’s from that — when she came to Dallas, she lived in that part of town. It was a smaller kind of place in a sort of important part of the city, and the black part of the city… My mother was maybe 16, 17, so she couldn’t manage to work and have me … so she took me to her grandparents — her father’s parents — in East Texas … when I was maybe nine months old or something like that… I spent the first six years there on a farm in the country. I joined them later when it was time to go to school… In the first grade, I went to the school in the country with all of the kids I knew and my cousins and took the bus. I was fine with it, but my mother was not hearing that, so I had to come [back] to the city. Every summer I went [back to the country]. I knew that world and because they were older and from a different generation, I knew those people, and I knew my great aunt, who was a bit older than them. And I remember when they got social security … I remember when they got electricity, when we got a television and the mystery about that, like what happens if it storms and the TV is on [and] this kind of stuff. So I remember a lot of things that others, even people my age, don’t know.
Then I went to Dallas in the second grade and I lived in my big housing project and that was a notorious part of town, the tough part of town. That project was new and you can’t think of it like now; now I joke, I tell my cousins and my friends, all those people you’re trying to run away from in the projects, they’ve got their own TV show (laughs). But it’s a different thing, because when we lived in there it was young families, right off, making their way, and they weren’t always like the poorest people, and they were ambitious people, and that was a transition for them until they could manage… So I lived there for nine years and then we moved — I think nine — well, I was going into the eighth grade and we moved to upper South Dallas because my uncle had a nice place and he died, and so my aunt inherited it. We spent a year there and then we moved across the river to a place called Oak Cliff.
In Black Film Review, (Volume 1, No. 4), Woodberry said about his childhood living on that small farm, “I think I absorbed the stories, the sensibilities, the sounds of that generation, born not so long ago after the end of slavery and Reconstruction.”
At Lincoln High School in Oak Cliff, Woodberry played football and saw movies down the street at the Lincoln as well as the Forest Avenue Theater — the latter now owned by Erykah Badu. He had offers from black colleges (Morgan State in Baltimore being one of them), but he decided to go west to California and went first to Santa Barbara City College.
Santa Barbara used to be a kind of weigh station for the Black Panthers because it was a very pleasant interlude before you entered Los Angeles County, where you encountered a very different police response than you did even in the Bay Area, so they liked that respite…They could kind of walk around and relax and be admired by young students, so I got to see that… My real heroes were the SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] people, many of whom I didn’t know until later, but I knew it from reading about them because those campaigns to raise support for the work in the South. And the Berkeley people; I didn’t know Berkeley or go to Berkeley until the 70s. I just knew their work and the people that passed through. And I picked that stuff up… I connected with that once I decided that, you know what, I really do want to finish school and see where that goes.
[After graduation] I went home, I got married, I didn’t want to stay there, so I stayed there for a total of two months, and I came to California March 1970. And I landed at my friend and his roommate’s house and I slept in his room on the floor and… She would wait. I would get a place, I would get things going. So I needed to get a job, I needed to see about school, and I probably accomplished all of it by summer with my friends. I got a job in a factory in Vernon. It’s a lithography plant. They printed all the album covers if you remember that phenomenon… My wife came. She was here for some months, then she was gonna have a baby. She was pregnant. She wanted to be back in her place, so in about six months, she moved back to have her baby and I stayed and I did a summer program at Cal State, which I didn’t have to do, but I’m actually incredibly happy… that I did it. Most of the people went to school at night because they worked during the day. And those guys, they had a kind of third-world consciousness because of the politics of the Panthers and the Chicano Moratorium… and they knew that these groups need to know each other and they need to cooperate and respect each other, so they gave you the history and they gave you the analysis and the sociology and all of that, relating to that, and you got exposed to it and it became a part of your thing. There’s no conflict, competition, and that kind of thing. You were interested in the other people and the issues, so very helpful, very useful things about how to study and how to organize your time and you direct yourself and how to ask for help if you need it and how to get support financially and otherwise — to do what you needed to do.
Woodberry continued his studies and Cal State Los Angeles, becoming a serious student as well as looking outside of his course work to grow intellectually. It was the time of the black consciousness movement, the black arts movement and he saw the large increase of black students at the top UC campuses post-1968.
It was exciting and it was easy to be excited about it and to be stimulated by it. So [in] 1972, I decide I want my degree. I found a receptive and hospitable and stimulating department in Pan-African studies, so I did my B.A. in African-American history and studies. In between graduating and the fall, I took a summer course in Latin American studies… there was this political scientist named Donald Bray who was a political scientist… That summer, Bray did a class on Cuba, but it was a class that was partly through film. And we saw all of the Cuban documentary films and the History Of A Battle [Historia de una batalla by Manuel Octavio Gómez]— the film about the literacy campaign and the brigadistas, the young ones who go in the countryside, volunteer with sleeping bags, and they wanted to teach every peasant how to at least how to read and write their name. It was a whole campaign. So you got to see all of [these] kind[s] of films. I found it really exciting and, along with starting to try to understand issues of history and political economy and philosophy and political organization and commitment, what it meant – I was excited by that… That was a part of the way that I was sort of taken with film.
My teachers, Harding and Bray, they knew I had a growing interest in that, and they mentioned to me — I had learned about UCLA Film School, but it was not something that I was committed to or sure I could. I was very tentative, but they knew I was interested, so one time, Paul Offredi, this Brazilian pedagogue, was meeting up at La Paz, the center and retreat for the United Farm Workers. This was 1970 — early 72. And they asked me would I like to go to see him because they knew I was [interested] and they said you can meet a guy, a Brazilian guy, who studies at UCLA — Mario DeSilva. He was in graduate school at UCLA. I said, “Sure.” I went, I didn’t wear warm enough clothes, I didn’t realize how cold it got. We took a van, I met him, I talked with him, I spent time with him, I went up, I saw Paul Offredi in an act with the farm workers and César Chávez, and I came back, and Mario told me, “Sure, make the application, you can do that and I will take you around.” Then, I made the application, they wrote me wonderful letters.
I was teaching myself as a part of learning about — wanting to learn about — film. And the other thing is I had made an 8mm film in my history of jazz and blues class for a guy I really love. He went to school here, did his Ph.D. in anthropology. His name was Lance Williams and he’s a real Los Angeles guy, he went to Mt. Carmel High School, he went to Cal State L.A., he came here, he knew a lot about jazz and music. He had been tutored by Quincy Jones and all those people. He’s a nice, brilliant, Catholic boy, you know what I mean? And really smart and [a] good teacher. I made this film based on a song by John Lee Hooker, “Whiskey and Women.” It was just a free-form kind of little film I made on Super 8, but I made it myself and edited in the camera. So I must’ve been interested, and he still talks about that. I made the first film in his class. [Now lost.]
I came over to visit before I got in, I think, with Mario and my then girlfriend because I had gotten a divorce and I had a new girlfriend… I came for his thesis screening. That’s where I met Charles Burnett. He was playing with a yo-yo (laughs) and being unassuming, not really showing you who he was, but Mario told me that, “that’s the guy you want to know and that’s the guy you [want to] really check out because he doesn’t do all the yapping and the posturing that the others [do], but I’m telling you, his is the real deal. I’ve worked with him, I’ve been in Watts with him. I know. He’s the real guy.” Now it took two years of something before we became friends, three almost. That was how I met him, though.
Going to UCLA was not the only film education Woodberry received. He remembers a bookstore/café named the Long March where he watched The Mother by Vsevolod Pudovkin, Sergei Eisenstein’s Old and New, and G. W. Pabst’s version of the Threepenny Opera. It was also a golden age of repertory cinemas in Los Angeles — Woodberry remembers seeing a retrospective of Jean-Luc Godard movies at the Vanguard. At the Vagabond, (programmed by William Moritz an important historian of animation and experimental films) Woodberry saw Glauber Rocha’s Antonio das Mortes. His first date with the woman that became his second wife, was at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to see Brazilian films. They also would take the bus down to the Fox Venice Theater where one Saturday they saw Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist and Godard’s Tout va Bien.
It’s good to see, for me to remember, that part of my film culture was formed in the context of the cultural and political world of the time and not just in the classroom.
That’s not to dismiss at all the importance of UCLA.
This was a wonderful, wonderful place because it was a world where you were inundated with film, with the talk about it, the smell of it, the young people getting their hands on equipment for the first time… and you had the requirements that you do three film history sections, that you do two seminars, and so you were able to… see all kinds of films that I might avoid… If I have to do the history of silent film, I can’t avoid it. And the fact [is] that I’m interested in it and I will buy books and read books about it. I don’t know [if] that’s everybody’s temperament or experience, but for me, it was… It’s interesting, too, that a number of my friends, including Geoffrey Gilmore, who’s at Tribeca now, but was [for] years at Sundance and did his studies here in film theory, film studies, film history, and others. A number of those people, we’ve remained friends since school because I’m genuinely interested in what they do and what they think about.
I remember the first discussion me and Charles [Burnett] had was: Pudovkin or Eisenstein? (laughs) He says, Pudovkin, because he’s more humanist. As I learned about his things, how he acquired his interest, his taste and over the years we’ve shared those things, and I really admire, and I was enriched by learning what his interests were and what informed what he did.
In Black Film Review, (Volume 1, No. 4, 1984), Woodberry added, “It was a very fertile time for the film school. Haile Gerima was there, Larry Clark was there, Charles Burnett was there. They were ahead of me and beginning to make their films. So it was a very dynamic and fertile environment…They organized screenings in the evenings. There were constant debates and arguments. And they were all very hard working and set the standards…In that environment, I think one could do less, but only with a lot of discomfort; you didn’t have many excuses for not striving to say something more. We all felt the dearth of images, of films that expressed what we thought, what we knew.”
About his own first attempts to make film, in that same magazine, Woodberry noted, “I was exposed to films that had a social dimension…In sort of a backwards way, from these films, I started to search for films that somehow demonstrated a possibility of expressing my concern with social and political issues. At a certain point, I wanted to make films. To try.” His first student film is now lost, but his next short film, The Pocketbook exists and it’s a small masterpiece.
With a small grant from the American Film Institute, Woodberry attempted the very ambitious Bless Their Little Hearts in 1979. But in that year, he had to stop for six months. Over the next three years, he was able to shoot approximately four-fifths of the film. Woodberry received his MFA from UCLA in 1982. It had taken a while to get through school since he had to make money to support himself and to produce Bless Their Little Hearts. In September of 1983, he had the film’s first screening at the Independent Feature Market in New York. The film is now considered a pioneering and essential work of the L.A. Rebellion — influenced by Italian neo-realism and the work of Third Cinema filmmakers. Bless Their Little Hearts was awarded an OCIC and Ecumenical Jury awards at the Berlin International Film Festival and was added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 2013. For some years after graduation, Woodberry taught at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television.
Currently, Woodberry is a permanent faculty member of the School of Film/Video and the School of Art at the California Institute of the Arts, where he has taught since 1989. Over the years, Woodberry has also been an established video and multimedia installation artist, his works appearing at the Viennale, DocLisboa, Amiens International Film Festival, Camera Austria Symposium, Harvard Film Archive, Human Rights Watch Film Festival and Museum of Modern Art.
Woodberry’s film portrait of black beat poet Bob Kaufman, And When I Die, I Won’t Stay Dead (2015) was the opening film of MoMA’s Doc Fortnight in 2016. It was a film long in the making:
“I’ve been researching him for about twelve, fourteen years. I knew about him before, since the seventies, from people who introduced me to his books. I always had his books, and I was impressed, but I didn’t know so much at the time. And then in 1986, I went to the City Lights bookstore and saw this magazine, Poetry Flash, and the cover [story] was about his death. At the time, I thought, “Maybe I should make a short movie about him. A kind of tribute.” But when I looked at it, I couldn’t figure out how to do it. I didn’t really grasp the tragic dimensions of his life. I was too naive — I didn’t know enough about life, enough about tragedy, enough about much. So I put it aside. In the early aughts, I took it up again. I spent six or seven years researching it, another four or five years shooting it, and I spent two years editing it.” — Interview by Danny King, Village Voice, February 19, 2016.
The film premiered at the 53rd Viennale, Vienna International Film Festival (2015), and has been featured at festivals nationally and internationally, including the 13th Doclisboa, Documentary International Film Festival – International Competition, Lisbon (2015); 45th International Film Festival Rotterdam – Signatures, (2016); 59th San Francisco International Film Festival (2016); Courtisane Film Festival, Ghent (2016); and The Flaherty Film Seminar, New York (2016).
“And When I Die, I Won’t Stay Dead — title lifted from a line in one of Kaufman’s poems — is director Woodberry’s inspired, moving meditation on Kaufman’s work and legacy. A seamless marriage of director and subject, the film is not only scored by but also moves to the rhythms of jazz and is itself a kind of poetry. Fans of Woodberry’s masterful 1984 film Bless Their Little Hearts (selected for preservation in the National Film Registry) won’t be surprised at the taut intelligence and rich artfulness of And When I Die, in which the director upends many bio-doc conventions. He opens the film by dropping the viewer into Kaufman’s narrative at its boiling point – after he has already made waves and a name for himself in San Francisco’s fecund poetry scene of the mid-twentieth century.” -For CraveOnline, Ernest Hardy, 2016
Woodberry’s short documentary, Marseille Après La Guerre (2016), is a portrait of dock workers in post-WWII Marseille, many of whom were of African descent, and pays homage to Senegalese film director, Ousmane Sembéne:
“These photographs [that make up the short] were found in the collection of the National Maritime Union, in their archives at the NYU library. They are views and photographs of the docks of Marseilles after the Second World War. The film is also a kind of tribute to Ousmane Sembène, the Senegalese writer and filmmaker because, in ’47, he made his way back to France after serving in the war. He went back to Marseilles, where he worked and lived as a dockworker and joined the CGT [General Confederation of Labor]. So it’s a tribute to him, and a tribute those dock people, and to Marseilles at the time. It’s also a tribute to a group of young musicians who kind of reclaimed this heritage. They were very responsive to a book by Claude McKay, a Jamaican writer who lived in the United States. He wrote a book in Marseilles called Banjo, about life in the old ports of Marseilles. It’s quite a book. These young musicians — they said if their band was a book, it would be called Banjo. I liked their music, so we used it. So it’s a way of promoting my affection for Sembène and for that world and also for finding that material.” — Interview by Danny King, Village Voice, February 19, 2016.
Marseille Après La Guerre received acclaim after its screenings at the Roy and Edna Disney Theater CalArts’ Downtown Center for Contemporary Arts, Los Angeles (2016), Courtisane Film Festival, Gent (2016), and Instituto Moreira Salles, Rio de Janeiro (2016).
Woodberry’s films have been screened at the Cannes and Berlin Film Festivals, Viennale, Rotterdam, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Harvard Film Archive, Camera Austria Symposium, Human Rights Watch Film Festival, Tate Modern, and Centre Pompidou.
He has also appeared in Charles Burnett’s When It Rains (1995) and provided narration for Thom Andersen’s Red Hollywood (1996) and James Benning’s Four Corners (1998).
In March 0f 2017, Woodberry was the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellows for “individuals who have already demonstrated exceptional capacity for productive scholarship or exceptional creative ability in the arts.”
Main Interview Courtesy of UCLA Film and Television Archive. Completed on: Thursday, June 24, 2010; July 6, 2010. Interviewee: Billy Woodberry (BW). Interviewers: Jacqueline Stewart, Dr. Allyson Field, and Robyn Charles. Transcribers: Kelly Lake, Michael Kmet.
- A Story from Africa (2019) (Short)
- And when I die, I won’t stay dead (2015)
- Bless Their Little Hearts (1983)
- The Pocketbook (1980) (Short)
“The impetus was the whole Civil Rights Movement and we felt we had a responsibility to reflect reality, tell the truth about the black community. To help, however we can, to march the social movement forward.”
Courtesy of film’s website:
Born in Vicksburg, Mississippi on April 13, 1944, Charles Burnett moved with his family to Los Angeles at an early age. He describes Watts, the community he grew up in, as having a strong mythical connection with the South thanks to the many Southern transplants who settled there — an atmosphere that has informed much of Burnett’s work. He attended John C. Fremont High School, where he ran track. As a member of the electronics club, Burnett befriended fellow electronics enthusiast and secretly aspiring actor Charles Bracy (The Million Dollar Rip-off, 1976), who would later work on and act in a number of Burnett’s films, including Killer of Sheep. Burnett and Bracy graduated in the same class and both went on to study as electricians at Los Angeles City College. Bracy left school early to take a full-time job and Burnett soon lost interest with the idea of being a professional electrician. “They were very strange people,” Burnett says of his electrician-to-be peers, “They told awful jokes. They were dull people. Didn’t want that. I was always interested in photography and looked into being a cinematographer and started taking creative writing at UCLA.”
Burnett decided to pursue a Master of Fine Arts in filmmaking at UCLA, where he was greatly influenced by his professors Basil Wright, the English documentary filmmaker famous for Night Mail and Song of Ceylon, and Elyseo Taylor, creator of the Ethno-Communications program and professor of Third World cinema. Burnett cites Jean Renoir, Satyajit Ray, Federico Fellini and Sidney Lumet as other important cinematic influences.
Burnett worked and studied at UCLA alongside Julie Dash, Haile Gerima, Billy Woodbury, Larry Clark, and Jamaa Fanaka (then known as Walter Gordon). He describes the UCLA film school as an “anti-Hollywood” environment with a “kind of anarchistic flavor to it.” The UCLA filmmakers shared a disdain for the Blaxploitation vogue of the day and a propensity toward filmmaking that was “relevant or extremely well done, original.” Clyde Taylor of New York University would later label this group of radical black film contemporaries the “L.A. Rebellion.” Although there was no conscious impetus among these filmmakers to declare themselves part of a “rebellion,” there was much camaraderie and exchange of ideas and labor between them. Burnett was the cinematographer for Gerima’s Bush Mama (1979), worked crew and camera and edited Dash’s Illusions (1982) and was the screenwriter and cinematographer for Woodbury’s Bless Their Little Hearts (1984).
Burnett and his contemporaries took their time at UCLA, staying in the program as long as they could in order to take advantage of the free film equipment and making film after film. Burnett made a number of seminal films at this time, the most notably his thesis film and first feature, Killer of Sheep. The precursor to Killer of Sheep, Several Friends (1969), was originally planned as a feature but ended up a short. Several Friends was a series of loose, documentary-style vignettes sketching the lives of a handful of characters, mostly played by amateurs (Burnett’s friends) living in Watts. Much of the film’s theme and aesthetic (and many of its actors) ended up in Killer of Sheep.
Several Friends is included in Milestone’s DVD release of Killer of Sheep, along with another student short The Horse (1973), the critically acclaimed short When It Rains (1995), his portrait of a family in post-Katrina New Orleans, Quiet as Kept, and both original release and the director’s cut of Burnett’s second feature, a long-neglected landmark of independent cinema, My Brother’s Wedding (1984).
My Brother’s Wedding began production in 1983. Burnett wrote, directed and produced this low budget independent film that examines the family connections and personal obligations facing Pierce, a young man trying to keep his best friend from going back to jail while dealing with his older brother’s approaching marriage into a bourgeois black family. My Brother’s Wedding uses both comedy and tragedy to explore the way that class figures into the American black experience. Burnett submitted a rough cut of the film to its producers, who against his wishes, accepted it as the final cut. The unfinished film was shown at the New Directors/New Films festival to mixed reviews, discouraging distributors and tragically relegating the film to relative obscurity.
In 1990, Burnett wrote and directed the haunting, malicious, and darkly funny family drama, To Sleep With Anger. Danny Glover, parlaying his recent stardom in Lethal Weapon to get funding, co-produced and starred in this critically lauded film as Harry, a charming, mischievous, and possibly supernatural Southern family friend. As he insinuates himself into the home of a prosperous black family, Harry, like another snaky charmer, threatens to spoil their domestic paradise. Burnett received acclaim in America and abroad for the film. In 1991, To Sleep With Anger won Independent Spirit Awards for Best Director and Best Screenplay for Burnett and Best Actor for Glover. The Library of Congress later selected this film (in addition to Killer of Sheep) for its prestigious National Film Registry. The National Society of Film Critics honored Burnett for best screenplay for To Sleep With Anger, making him the first black filmmaker to win in this category in the group’s 25-year history. While the Los Angeles Times reported that Burnett’s movie reminded viewers of Anton Chekov, Time magazine wrote: “If Spike Lee’s films are the equivalent of rap music — urgent, explosive, profane, then Burnett’s movie is good, old urban blues.” The film also received a Special Jury Recognition Award at the 1990 Sundance Film Festival and a Special Award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. Both Burnett and Glover were nominated for New York Film Critics Circle Awards.
Burnett’s next film, The Glass Shield, (1994, starring Lori Petty, Michael Boatman and Ice Cube) was a police drama based on a true story of corruption and racism within the Los Angeles police force. While the film went over well with critics, it was not a commercial success. Terrence Rafferty explains: “[The Glass Shield is] a thoughtful, lucid moral drama with a deeply conflicted hero and no gunplay whatsoever. Miramax’s fabled marketing department tried to sell it as a hood movie, dumping it in a few urban theaters with the support of miniscule ads whose most prominent feature was the glowering face of Ice Cube (who has a small role in the picture).”
Burnett followed this feature with the short, When It Rains (1995), which was chosen as one of the ten best films of 1990s by the Chicago Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum. Rosenbaum went on to choose Killer of Sheep and To Sleep with Anger as two of the Top 100 American Films as Alternate to the American Film Institute Top 100.
Working with movie stars James Earl Jones and Lynn Redgrave, Burnett directed the surreal interracial romantic comedy The Annihilation of Fish (1999), which won awards at the Newport Beach, Sarasota, and Worldfest Houston Film Festivals.
Burnett traveled to Africa to make Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation (2007), a powerful, epic biography of Sam Nujoma, the leader of the South West Africa People’s Movement and the nation’s first president. Based on Nujoma’s memoirs, the film stars Carl Lumbly and Danny Glover.
Throughout his career, Burnett has also embraced the documentary form — many of his earliest film efforts walk the line between fiction and nonfiction cinema. He directed the 1991 documentary about U.S. immigration, America Becoming; Dr. Endesha Ida Mae Holland (1998), a portrait of a civil rights activist, playwright, and teacher; and Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (2003) about the leader of an important slave rebellion.
Burnett made his television debut directing his acclaimed 1996 Disney Channel film, Nightjohn. Based on the Gary Paulsen’s novel, the film tells the story of a slave’s risky attempt to teach an orphaned slave girl to read and write. New Yorker film critic Terrence Rafferty called Nightjohn the “best American movie of 1996.” The TV film received a 1997 Special Citation Award from the National Society of Film Critics “for a film whose exceptional quality and origin challenge strictures of the movie marketplace.”
Burnett’s television work also includes the 1998 ABC two-part mini-series Oprah Winfrey Presents: The Wedding, starring Halle Barry and Lynn Whitfield; Selma, Lord, Selma (1999), about the infamous 1965 “Bloody Sunday” civil rights march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge; a film about Negro League Baseball, Finding Buck McHenry (2000); Relative Stranger (2009), a drama about a painful family reunion; and Warming By the Devil’s Fire (2003), an episode in Martin Scorsese’s six-part documentary The Blues for PBS. Burnett also worked on the PBS miniseries American Family: The Journey of Dreams, which debuted in 2002.
In 1997, the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival honored Burnett with a retrospective, Witnessing For Everyday Heroes, presented at New York’s Walter Reade Theater of Lincoln Center. Burnett has been awarded 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 Fellowship (a.k.a. “the genius grant”).
Burnett is also the winner of the American Film Institute’s Maya Deren Award, and one of the very few people ever to be honored with Howard University’s Paul Robeson Award for achievement in cinema. The Chicago Tribune has called him “one of America’s very best filmmakers” and the New York Times named him “the nation’s least-known great filmmaker and most gifted black director.” Burnett has even had a day named after him — in 1997, the mayor of Seattle declared February 20 to be Charles Burnett Day.
Burnett has been cited as a major influence by many current artists, musicians, writers, and filmmakers, including Barry Jenkins, Sherman Alexie, Lance Hammer, Matthew David Wilder, Bill Jennings. David Gordon Green, Nelson Kim, Kahlil Joseph, Ava DuVernay, Lynne Ramsay, Monona Wali, Mos Def, Pamela J. Peters, and hip hop duo Shabazz Palaces.
Burnett’s next feature film project, Tanner’s Song, pays homage from Bobby Kimball — original lead signer of the Grammy Award-winning band, Toto — to the wise man who mentored him. Danny Glover has expressed interest in playing the role of Tanner.
Charles Burnett lives Los Angeles. He is the father of two sons, Jonathan and Steven, and the grandfather of Malia and Leila Burnett.
“I don’t think I’m capable of answering problems that have been here for many years. But I think the best I can do is present them in a way where one wants to solve these problems.”
- After the LockDown: Black in LA (2021)
- Power to Heal: Medicare and the Civil Rights Revolution (2018)
- Relative Stranger (2009)
- Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation (2007)
- For Reel? (2003)
- Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (2003)
- Finding Buck McHenry (2000)
- The Annihilation of Fish (1999)
- The Wedding (1998)
- The Final Insult (1997)
- Documenta X – Die Filme (1997)
- Nightjohn (1996)
- The Glass Shield (1994)
- America Becoming (1991)
- To Sleep with Anger (1990)
- My Brother’s Wedding (1983)
- Killer of Sheep (1978)
Here is a curated selection of links shared on our Facebook page for additional insight/information:
- 6/21/17 – “Forms, with Killer of Sheep, a landmark diptych about work as the crucible of the American character either in its abundance or its absence.” Jim Ridley, Village Voice – link
- 7/17/17 – “Burnett and Woodberry are two of the crucial figures in the L.A. Rebellion, a group of black filmmakers, centered around U.C.L.A. in the nineteen-seventies and early eighties, whose films have enduringly marked the history of cinema.” Richard Brody, The New Yorker – link