Charles Burnett b. April 13, 1944, Vicksburg, Mississippi, USA filmography bibliography web resources

I think a strong case can be made that Charles Burnett is the most gifted and important black filmmaker this country has ever had. But there’s a fair chance you’ve never heard of him…

—Jonathan Rosenbaum

[T]he least well-known great American filmmaker.

—Armond White

If [Killer of Sheep] were an Italian film from 1953, we would have every scene memorized.

—Michael Tolkin

Charles Burnett is the epitome of a cult hero—almost famous for not being famous. On the rare occasion his work attracts any notice in the mainstream press, the article will be sure to mention how little attention his work receives in the mainstream press. Despite the public acclaim of critics and fellow filmmakers, the festival awards and retrospectives, the MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, the Library of Congress’ selection of Killer of Sheep for its National Film Registry—despite his legendary status among a small cohort of cinephiles, Burnett goes unrecognized by the larger culture, the pop marketplace. His films are known to few. But among those few they’re loved by many. Killer of Sheep

The best qualities of Burnett’s films are the very things that make them a tough sell in the mass-media world. The people in Killer of Sheep (1977) and To Sleep with Anger (1990) don’t conform to the usual commercial-film typology of hero, villain, supporting player, love interest and comic relief. Like Renoir, Ozu, Altman, Leigh—like Chekhov—Burnett presents his characters in the round, justifying themselves to themselves. (In industry terms, that means there’s no one to root for.) He does not direct us to feel a certain way as the narratives unfold. At its best, his work is not easily digestible at one sitting: morally and emotionally complex, subtly layered with cultural references and mythic overtones, these films ask us not to judge them too quickly. (In industry terms, that means they’re slow and boring.) Finally, he’s black, and he rejects sensationalism, stereotype, and genre convention in favor of human-scaled, richly observed tales of African-American life. (In industry terms: he’s got no chance.)

Burnett was born in Mississippi in 1944 and moved as a child to Los Angeles, where he has lived ever since. During the 1960s, after receiving a degree in electronics at Los Angeles Community College, he planned to pursue a career in engineering but instead enrolled in UCLA to study film. His student contemporaries included Haile Gerima (Sankofa, 1993) and Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust, 1991). Burnett credits his years at UCLA with shaping his sense of cinema as a social and political act:

Charles Burnett: It was a wonderful place to be and I’m glad I went there…You didn’t make films for commercial reasons or using your student film as a calling card for Hollywood. Hollywood wasn’t accessible to black independent filmmakers, or films by people of color, unless they were black exploitation films. You never expected anything from Hollywood. Filmmaking was for you making personal and political statements. And one of the good things about UCLA was a teacher named Elyseo Taylor who started the Ethno-Communications department, a program to bring in people of color, Native Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanics, and Afro-Americans. I was one of the Teacher Assistants in that group and the objective was to get people of color to tell stories about their community. A lot of positive things came out of it. All the people attending the course were there making films in response to false and negative images that Hollywood films were promoting. There was an anti-Hollywood attitude—but it was more than that, the focus was on you telling your story and working out an aesthetic. (1)

Nelson Kim: I have a theory that there are two kinds of people who become serious filmmakers. One is the cinephile, the Scorseses and Godards—they fall in love with cinema, it’s all about cinema, and it’s only later they figure out what sort of stories they want to tell with it. And the other kind already knows what stories they want to tell and then finds out that cinema is the way to do it. I would guess that you’re more of the second kind?

CB: Yeah. Because there was all this activity going on in the ’60s and art was part of it. There was a lot of poetry being produced, short stories, plays and things like that and you were always asked, “What can you do?” You know, you’re either part of the problem or part of the solution, that was the phrase of the time. So we knew the issues that we were trying to deal with, and the only way to do it was through the different forms of expressions, different media, and for some, films became a possible way to emphasize these things.

After making several short films at UCLA, Burnett began work on his thesis project: a feature film, an episodic study of a blue-collar worker and family man in South Central Los Angeles. Killer of Sheep was financed, meagerly, by grants as well as Burnett’s own money, and shot on 16mm over a series of weekends with a cast of non-professional actors. Completed in 1973, it was not officially released (and then only in the most piecemeal way) until 1977. Killer of Sheep

How did the storyline for Killer of Sheep develop?

CB: I had been working with other filmmakers who were doing stories about working-class people and they were, I thought, sort of romanticizing it. These films were about working-class people but made by students who were far removed from that environment. I wanted to tell a story about a man who was trying to hold on to some values that were constantly being eroded by other forces, by his plight in the community, and the quality of the job that he had. At the same time he wanted to do right by his family. I didn’t want to impose my values on his situation. I just wanted to show his life. And I didn’t want to resolve his situation by imposing artificial solutions like him becoming a doctor or a diplomat, when the reality is that most people don’t get out. I wanted to show that there is a positive element to his life, and that is that he endures, he’s accepted it.

The film unfolds in a loose, leisurely, seemingly improvised (but actually tightly scripted and storyboarded) flow of events. The photography is unadorned and unpretty. This is home-grown filmmaking: shooting something with your own friends and family in your own neighborhood, using real locations and sticking close to situations encountered in daily life. Killer of Sheep, in broad outline, might seem like the kind of movie anybody could make. But nobody else has ever made anything like it.

One critic [Armond White] wrote that Killer of Sheep was in some ways your “response to the lies of blaxploitation.” Was that in any way true?

CB: In some ways, yeah, in many ways. A lot of us were angry at those films because they became the only representation of our experience in the movies. So we were very conscious of knowing that’s who the enemy was, so to speak. And then there were the seemingly positive images like Sidney Poitier movies which were great but they spoke more to the white community than the black community. We needed the spectrum, the full range of the black experience. Then there were also attempts at being positive and political with social-realist pictures where the issues are very clear: for example, there’s exploitation in a shop, the manager is exploiting the workers, so you have to have the people come together and form a strike.

A clear-cut political solution.

CB: Yeah. And then boom, you get your worker’s rights, and everyone is happy. But it wasn’t the case where I was living. And there were too many films I saw like that. And that troubled me equally as much as the black exploitation films.

Killer of Sheep consists of a series of scenes in the life of Stan (Henry Gayle Saunders) and his family. The film begins in the most riveting and enigmatic way: a man is yelling at his young son for failing to defend his brother in a fight. Suddenly the boy’s mother steps forward and slaps the child across the face. All this happens quickly, the faces jamming the tightly packed frame and rubbing up against our eyes. We don’t ever learn who the boy is; he and his parents are never seen again—but Burnett has said in an interview that the scene is one of Stan’s childhood memories. The moment is not really explained or expanded upon during what follows; it exists to foreground the film’s theme of survival, of persevering in a world of shit. And underneath the harsh tone, one can sense the heart that powers Killer of Sheep and almost all of Burnett’s work: family love—intolerable, intractable, and irreplaceable. Killer of Sheep

The bulk of the film shows us Stan’s life as an adult—at work, killing sheep in a slaughterhouse; at home, exhausted, depressed, impotent, unwilling to talk to his wife (Kaycee Moore), unable to sleep. Interspersed with Stan’s daily struggles are scenes of neighborhood life, intensely rendered images of pain and cruelty: A boy is wounded in a rock-throwing fight. A girl watches as a band of children pelt her freshly hung laundry with mud. A lovers’ quarrel turns deadly. The sheep at Stan’s slaughterhouse stare into the camera just before they’re crushed, skinned, and gutted…Poverty is the dark cloud that looms over the characters’ lives, mocking their hopes of better days ahead. Stan helps a friend buy a used motor to fix up his old junked car; the motor falls from the back of the truck carrying it and cracks open in the street. Later, a weekend drive to the racetrack, holding out the promise of carefree escape, ends in failure when the car gets a flat tire. These scenes, so understated in their telling, stay with you longer than most movie murders.

And yet, and here is the miracle of the film, breaking through the darkness are glimpses of comedy and tenderness that make your crying eyes melt into a smile. Stan holds a warm coffee mug to his face; it reminds him of his wife’s forehead when they’re making love. Dian, married to Stan’s friend Gene, is worried that Gene has spent their last dime on fixing his car, but she refuses an offered gift of canned peaches, figuring she’ll find some way to get by. A crippled young woman, painfully awkward and shy, tells Stan’s wife that she is pregnant, and the neighborhood women crowd around her offering sisterly congratulations: “Well, I thought her old man was shooting blanks but I see he’s dropping bombs on occasion.” Even the doomed sheep nuzzle one another with what looks like affection. The tone is gentle, the style uncoercive, but the movie’s cumulative emotional force astonishes. The scenes seem to have been caught on the fly yet they linger in the memory as if engraved there. It’s a poem that feels like a documentary, and one of the saddest, happiest movies imaginable.

Burnett received financing from British and German television to make his next feature, My Brother’s Wedding (1983), a comedy-drama about generational differences and class tensions. Thirty-year-old Pierce (Everett Silas) works at his parents’ dry-cleaning store in Watts. The movie contrasts the upwardly mobile striving of Pierce’s lawyer brother, soon to marry into a more prosperous middle-class family, and the downward spiral of his best friend, just returning from prison. Pierce is a post-civil-rights urban black man who disdains his parents’ old-school Southern values, and looks upon his brother as a suit-and-tie sellout, but his rebellion is limited to petulant tirades against his bourgeois in-laws-to-be. At the film’s end, tragedy compels him to choose between duty to the family that made him and the friendship he chose for himself, but in trying to fulfill both obligations at once, he does right by neither.

The production ran into trouble when Silas, a non-professional, quit when he was refused a pay raise; after being persuaded to return, he quit again to become a preacher. These delays extended the shooting of the film, and before Burnett could complete post-production, his German backers demanded the finished work. Burnett, under pressure, sent them a rough cut. This is the only version that was ever released (although Burnett is currently re-editing the film as he had originally intended it; see end of article). Like Killer of Sheep, it never found significant distribution in the U.S., and has never been available on video. Though a more uneven work than Killer of Sheep, it is clearly the product of the same remarkable vision.

To Sleep with Anger Problems of production and distribution aside, the film’s absence from American screens (and American cultural memory) should not be surprising. Although the story of Pierce’s divided loyalties generates a strong narrative momentum not found in Killer of Sheep, My Brother’s Wedding resembles its predecessor in the way it forsakes hyped-up scene-making for the quiet observation of quotidian reality. Burnett lets the narrative stray from its central storyline to show us life in its undramatic moments, when most of life is lived. We see Pierce bathing his ailing grandfather, listen to the flirtatious banter of a lovesick teenage girl, watch in amazement as a junkie planning a robbery is scared off by the sight of an old woman lost in prayer. These scenes remind us how eagerly the vast majority of movies—genre films, of one type or another—seek escape in melodrama and spectacle. Against this, Burnett would show us how to escape from mere escapism. Genre films by definition speak in codes easily accessible to the culture at large, and the more interesting ones can serve as powerful metaphors for social and psychological phenomena. But genre also can be a straitjacket to perception. It restricts the depiction of human behavior to a narrow range of acceptable clichés, and limits narrative to a series of stock situations. My Brother’s Wedding fits no genre. The film asks viewers to find its rhythm and move to it. What the Italian neorealists accomplished in the years after World War Two, and what a handful of daring Iranian directors have done more recently, Burnett—a one-man African-American New Wave—achieved with his first two features: he gave a culture, a people, a nation new images of themselves.

People always talk about the Italian neorealists in connection with you. Were they a conscious influence?

CB: Not really. I studied the Italian neorealists after I had thought of making Killer of Sheep. But that comes back to the whole issue of filmmakers trying to arrive at the truth without framing the story in a Hollywood structure.

In one interview you mentioned Basil Wright as an influence? [Wright taught at UCLA during Burnett’s time there.]

CB: Yeah. A British documentary filmmaker—he did Song of Ceylon [1934] and Night Mail [1936], he was a contemporary of Grierson and Flaherty. He was a quiet gentleman, a very intellectual filmmaker but never pretended to be more than a common man. He was very committed, and genuinely so—life wasn’t an abstract thing with him, he saw poverty, he saw what was going on, and it shows in his films.

Your stuff always reminds me of Jean Renoir.

CB: I like Jean Renoir’s work. In fact, one of the first films that struck me in a meaningful way was The Southerner [1945]. I’m from the South, and when I saw that film I could feel a humanity that was rare in Hollywood films that dealt with race. What was ironic was, that film stayed in my mind for a long time, and I got to film school years later and [a professor] used that as an example of a European’s poor attempt to make a film about Americans—and I thought it was one of the greatest attempts! It presented things with such a sensitive eye—so respectful. You’ve seen Renoir’s film about the captured World War I soldiers…

Grand Illusion.

CB: Yes, Grand Illusion [1937]—I get the title confused with Rules of the Game [1939] because I always thought that should be the title for Grand Illusion.

Yeah—and Grand Illusion would be a great title for Rules of the Game!

CB: Yeah, it would. Anyway, in one scene you see army men in a bar—and you see black soldiers integrated with white soldiers and white women. Implying that people of color contributed to the war—which never happened in American movies, until years after World War II, and again, that was conditional, as if their participation in the war was very marginal and couldn’t be measured. Jean Renoir’s films embraced life and spoke a truth that was absent in American films. Racism in American culture kept American films from being honest. In The Southerner, there’s that same expansionist vision of humanity. You see the black character, and the white character [Sam Tucker] that Zachary Scott plays—they were on equal footing. It wasn’t like the black guy was scratching his head, going ohh, ohh, ohh, and the Zachary Scott character was doling out generosity and helping him. They were equal. They shared the screen. And I think that upset a lot of people. It wasn’t the typical paradigm, where the blacks were shuffling and dependent. They were all sharecroppers, white and black, and sharecropping was hard for everyone. The rich landowners were the ones who benefited. Not the poor whites who were fighting for the same scraps from the master’s table. Renoir showed it.

By 1988, Burnett says he had reached “rock bottom” financially. Relief arrived in the form of a MacArthur grant. The money bought him time to develop a new project, a screenplay that drew upon his memories of Southern black folklore. Thanks to the participation of Danny Glover (freshly bankable from the Lethal Weapon franchise) Burnett was able to raise a budget of over a million dollars. 1990 saw the release of a second masterpiece, To Sleep with Anger.

CB: I was born in the South and have lived most of my life in Los Angeles. In L.A. the whole community, from the ’40s, ’50s, up until about the Civil Rights movement, was a community composed of people from Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, and places like that. Actually, it was unusual to find someone who was born in California. You really had that Southern vibe there, the folkways and the culture were there in Los Angeles—people used to raise chickens in the backyard, and everybody knew one another. But all that has changed. There were a lot of positive things then, because there was an ethos, a certain way of conducting yourself and a culture that was nurturing. Something like that really helps to inform you about the world in a poetic way—it gives you a sort of moral insight into life and when you get older, you might appreciate that more. It seeps into your unconscious. There’s always been this issue of the black middle class’s responsibility to continue to be a force in the black community. One of To Sleep with Anger‘s themes deals with that issue, of the middle class abandoning the rest of the race, deserting the culture and then returning to it. The film is really about connecting the past to the present.

Gideon (Paul Butler) is the old-fashioned patriarch of a middle-class family in L.A. He and Susie (Mary Alice), a midwife, preside over a clan that includes Junior (Carl Lumbly) and Samuel (Richard Brooks), known to all as Baby Brother, and their wives and children. Junior is the elder child, rock-steady and industrious, bringing his family to church with Gideon and Susie every Sunday, picking up his younger brother’s slack. Undependable Baby Brother complains to wife Linda (Sheryl Lee Ralph) that the family is “no different from farm animals”, caught up in old folk superstitions and outdated morality. To Sleep with Anger

As the film gets underway Burnett plants references to the Southern hoodoo and voodoo that Gideon and Susie grew up with, and that linger on in the deep-rooted memories of their sons. (Gideon is distraught over the recent loss of his toby, a good-luck charm.) The lovely blues song played over the opening credits and used as a refrain throughout begins, “Precious memories, how they linger, how they ever flood my soul”, and the past—personal, cultural, historical—is palpable in nearly every moment of the film. The early scenes bring the family tensions to a slow boil, which bubble over with the sudden arrival of an old acquaintance of Gideon and Susie’s from down South—a ramblin’ man with a roving eye and a shady past, and the name of Harry Mention (Glover). Soon, Baby Brother is in outright rebellion against Gideon and Junior, and Gideon falls ill, and more old folks crawl out of the woodwork and invite themselves into the family’s lives.

Burnett’s Renoiresque/Chekhovian humanist genius reaches a peak with To Sleep with Anger: Every character is a protagonist, each with their own reasons. (If Sheep is a poem, Anger is like a great social novel.) Gideon is a caring and decent man but it’s easy to see why Baby Brother considers him an old fool, pigheaded and dictatorial. Linda is justified in regarding her in-laws as dull hicks, but what kind of daughter-in-law sits in the car reading magazines instead of joining the family for a Sunday meal and risking boredom? Baby Brother’s desire to be his own man is persuasively sketched, yet seen through Junior’s eyes he’s still a lazy adolescent ingrate. And Harry Mention? Talk about humanism—Burnett gives even the devil his due.

Harry, embodied by Glover in a performance of surpassing wit and zest, may stand for many things. A living symbol of the Southern past, returned to show the family what they’re really made of? A bogeyman, or trickster, threatening—what? To steal Gideon’s soul? Or Baby Brother’s? It’s never made explicit. The film is loaded with supernatural rituals and black magic, yet just as Buñuel’s dream sequences abjure camera tricks and special effects for a far more haunting surface naturalism, Burnett never shows any puffs of smoke or mumbo-jumbo B-movie visions of evil. We remain grounded in the real.

Harry Mention is a trickster figure? Is he based on any particular versions of any particular tale?

CB: There is a character called Hairyman who comes along when you are in trouble and he offers to give you what you desire if you trade it for your soul. Almost after accepting the deal, you regret it and you learn that in order to get your soul back you have to outsmart him when he comes for you.

To Sleep with Anger is a family tale as emotionally resonant and as richly imagined (and as well cast) as Welles’ Magnificent Ambersons [1942] and Coppola’s first two Godfather films. Unlike those earlier classics, Burnett’s may not amaze you upon first viewing; the film is not splashy or melodramatic—it works its sly comic magic in more mysterious ways. Its crisscrossing ironies and dense layers of reference and meaning make To Sleep with Anger as rewarding a re-viewing experience as any of Robert Altman’s great ensemble pieces. Unfortunately, the film’s distributor failed to market it effectively, and despite some critical acclaim it quickly disappeared from theaters. (It remains, however, one of the easiest of Burnett’s films to find on home video.)

CB: Hollywood has this psychology—there’s this whole plantation mentality where it’s all about power and someone trying to impose their values on you. It’s nuts, they’ll tell you how to tell stories about people they never really came into contact with. Executives, story readers, development executives don’t interact with people other than their kind so how would they know what’s acceptable to people of color? It is not about and never has been about supplying a diverse look at life. It is all from and for a white audience. And because of that fact this group of people who determines what the world sees have no idea, not a clue as to reality. It is a product of arrogance and power. Input from you is viewed as a personal attack. If you try to go beyond stereotypes and reflect real people who share the same concerns as everyone else, you’re told that your characters aren’t “black” enough, or to use more curse words because the language isn’t “real” enough. You have to have drugs and gangsters. Some person who saw To Sleep With Anger said, “I didn’t know that black people had washing machines!” Where did they get that notion? Well, it was an honest observation in a way because Hollywood shows us poor and grimy without any means of support except if you are a rapper or prostitute or selling drugs. They have this notion of what films should be, and what the realities of your environment are, and if you come up with what is real, that becomes unreal to them, in a sense. It’s important to tell your own story, and when you see other people telling your story, and [when] someone denies you your reality, and is telling you what your family and your grandmother are like—how outrageous can it get? You have to be able to tell your stories and share them with the rest of the world. How else are things supposed to change?

Despite the lukewarm reception of To Sleep with Anger, Burnett has been more prolific than ever in the years since its release. He directed a television documentary about the new generation of immigrants in the U.S., America Becoming (1991); an Oprah Winfrey-produced miniseries for ABC, The Wedding (1998); and a quirky but insubstantial feature starring James Earl Jones and Lynn Redgrave, The Annihilation of Fish (still unreleased), among many other projects.

The Glass Shield Particularly noteworthy from the 1990s are two very different films, one a mainstream feature distributed by Miramax, the other a 13-minute short that played the festival circuit. The Glass Shield (1995) is based on the true story of an idealistic rookie cop who discovers that the L.A. police station he works for is rooted in racism, corruption, and murder. The film is an honorable attempt to fuse Burnett’s humane sensibility and social conscience with the demands of pop storytelling. When It Rains (1995) is the tale of a musician who spends New Year’s Day trying to help a friend pay the rent. In its poetic-realist style, its neighborhood-focused setting, and its conditions of production (financed by a small grant from European television, and made by Burnett with a cast and crew of friends and acquaintances), When It Rains recalls the director’s early films.

Arguably his strongest work from this fertile period is a movie made for the Hallmark Hall
of Fame
series on the Disney Channel. Nightjohn (1996), adapted by Bill Cain from a novel for young adults by Gary Paulsen, is the story of Sarny (Allison Jones), a young house slave on a cotton plantation, who is taught to read by Nightjohn (Carl Lumbly), a slave who escaped to the north but returned to captivity to teach others what he knew. By the film’s end, Sarny’s surrogate family has been broken up and she is to be sold to another owner, but the lesson has been learned: she too will pass on what she knows. Nightjohn is a PG-13 Disney movie, but it’s also a full-blooded Charles Burnett film: family-friendly fare that doesn’t shrink from showing slavery’s horrors, an adolescent’s coming-of-age tale told with an adult’s sense of historical reality and moral complexity. Cain’s teleplay is never less than fiercely intelligent, and Burnett’s direction achieves a new level of clarity and simplicity. (Nightjohn is available on video.)

You definitely have a distinctive cinematic style, but you don’t deal with flashy shots, flashy cuts…

CB: I think you have to play with form and content, like in the blues. The blues is limited in certain ways, there’s a certain formula to it, it’s almost like haiku: the challenge is to create a whole world, and to be inventive, within a very limited structure. And the blues proves that you can. And that’s where the creative part comes in, how one uses the voice and the instrument. It may be the AABB format or whatever, but they’ve taken their instruments and just made [the form] their own, stretching notes and things like that. Like the jug bands, where the inventions were crude and primitive but they created interesting sounds. They didn’t let classical forms dictate to them, the important thing was to make the instrument have a voice to communicate their feelings.

More projects have followed. A biopic of Nat Turner, a fusion of documentary and fictional storytelling, awaits television release, and Burnett joins Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, Mike Figgis, and other notable directors for the documentary miniseries The Blues, airing on PBS in 2003. He hopes one day to bring Chester Himes’ The Crazy Kill to the big screen. And Milestone Film and Video plans to re-release Killer of Sheep along with Burnett’s newly re-edited version of My Brother’s Wedding in theaters, to be followed by the first-ever home video versions of both films. The body of work continues to grow, and Burnett is not yet sixty years old. He remains optimistic that the new digital-video, home-editing, and Internet technologies will help democratize moviemaking and distribution, and bring new blood to the art form:

CB: One of the promising features of films made with digital cameras, digital editing and new ways of distributing digitally is that they bring production and distribution within your reach. See, in this business, you go through Hollywood and spend all your time begging for money. Hopefully, when broadband comes about, when it’s just wide open and anybody can download [what they want to see], the whole world will be your audience. The idea is to be in a position now so that when it happens, you have something to show them.

What do you think about the whole death-of-film thing—sadness, or excitement about the future?

CB: I think it’s the same thing with sound, with editing. People said when sound came, it would destroy images. And I remember with linear editing, people who were die-hard [about] film said, “I can’t feel the film in my hand! It isn’t editing!” On the other hand, when you start doing digital, you can do so many versions of a thing, which is a danger, because now producers can ask, oh, try this, try that. Before, it was time-consuming to do that. But the new technology offers a lot that shouldn’t be cast aside. It should be embraced and taken advantage of. It will be the best means for most of us to tell our stories.

So you’re more excited about the future.

CB: Yeah, I mean, before, there was no alternative…Once you have the equipment, even if it’s one of those small digital cameras, you can stop worrying about costs and think more about the quality of the work. You can buy so many cartridges [so cheaply], as opposed to hundreds of thousands of dollars in film and lab costs…But just because the technology is so easy—you still have to make good films. It still takes a talented eye, it still takes a good story, to really display it. It doesn’t do it itself.

As long as you have creative control…

CB: It’s not a matter of control, it’s a matter of responsibility. It’s what you do with the media, what you do with the story, what you want to say.

Special thanks to Dennis Doros of Milestone Film and Video, Hal Felker, and Richard Peña. Danny Glover and Charles Burnett on the set of To Sleep with Anger


As director:

Several Friends (1969) short film

The Horse (1973) short film

Killer of Sheep
(1977) also writer, producer, cinematographer, editor

My Brother’s Wedding
(1983) also writer, producer, cinematographer

To Sleep with Anger
(1990) also writer

America Becoming
(1991) television documentary; also co-writer

The Glass Shield
(1995) also writer; based in part on the screenplay “One of Us” by Ned Welsh

When It Rains
(1995) short film; also writer

(1996) made for television

The Final Insult
(1997) unreleased in USA

The Wedding
(1998) made for television

Dr. Endesha Ida Mae Holland
(1998) documentary short film

Selma, Lord, Selma
(1999) made for television

The Annihilation of Fish
(2000) unreleased

Olivia’s Story
(2000) short film; also editor

Finding Buck McHenry
(2000) made for television

The Blues
(2002) made for television; documentary; co-director

Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property
(2003) made for television; also co-writer

Independent Lens 
(2004) made for television; documentary; co-director

Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation 
(2007); made for television; documentary; also writer

Quiet as Kept 
(2007) short film; also writer, producer, cinematographer, editor

Relative Stranger 
(2009) made for television

Mulatto Saga 
(2012) short film; co-director

Other Credits:

Bless Their Little Hearts (Billy Woodbury, 1984) writer, cinematographer


S. Torriano Berry and Venise T. Berry, The 50 Most Influential Black Films, New York, Citadel Press, 2001 [includes a short piece on To Sleep with Anger]

Charles Burnett, “Inner City Blues” in Jim Pines and Paul Willemen (eds), Questions of Third Cinema, London, BFI Publishing, 1989

Ed Guerrero, Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film, Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1993

Phyllis Rauch Klotman (ed.), Screenplays of the African American Experience, Bloomington and Indianapolis,
Indiana University Press, 1991 [contains the screenplay for Killer of Sheep]

Terence Rafferty, “Invisible Man”, GQ, March 2001

Jonathan Rosenbaum, “The World According to Harvey and Bob (Smoke and The Glass Shield)” in Movies as Politics, Berkeley/Los Angeles/London, University of California Press, 1997

Cliff Thompson, “The Devil Beats His Wife: Small Moments and Big Statements in the Films of Charles Burnett”, Cineaste, Vol. XXIII, No. 2, 1997

Armond White, “To Sleep with Anger” in The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture that Shook the World, New York, Overlook Press, 1995

Armond White, “Sticking to the Soul: Charles Burnett”, Film Comment, January–February 1997

Armond White, “Killer of Sheep” in Jay Carr (ed.), The A List: The National Society of Film Critics’ 100 Essential Films, Cambridge, Massachusetts and New York, Da Capo Press, 2002 Nightjohn

Articles in Senses of Cinema

The Long Game: Conversations with Independent Iconoclasts Roger Corman, George A. Romero, and Charles Burnett review by Nicholas Godfrey

Web Resources

The Austin Chronicle A 1999 profile by Charles Nafus.

Black Independent Cinema and the Influence of Neo-Realism
An essay from Images by Chris Norton.

British Film Institute The BFI’s video archives of an interview with Burnett.

Challenging Understandings: An Essay on Charles Burnett’s To Sleep with Anger
Ray Carney on To Sleep with Anger and Burnett’s work in general.

Charles Burnett interview
An interview from Cinemad magazine, by Mike Plante.

The Chicago Reader
Jonathan Rosenbaum reviews Nightjohn.

The Chicago Reader
Rosenbaum reviews The Final Insult.

Directors Guild of America
Article about a 2001 screening of Killer of Sheep at the DGA Theater in Los Angeles.

Film Directors – Articles on the Internet
Links to several articles can be found here.

Folk Culture and Masculine Identity in Charles Burnett’s To Sleep with Anger
An academic analysis from African American Review, by Karen Chandler.

Freedom in Film Award
Burnett is awarded the inaugural Freedom in Film Award from the First Amendment Center and the Nashville Independent Film Festival.

Human Rights Watch International Film Festival
Program guide from the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival’s 1997 tribute to Burnett at Lincoln Center.

The Independent
An article/interview by Skye Sherwin, on the occasion of the British Film Institute’s 2002 re-release of To Sleep with Anger in England.

Nashville Scene
1999 profile/interview by Jim Ridley.

New York Press
Armond White’s review of David Gordon Green’s George Washington discusses Burnett’s influence on Green.

New York Times
A 1997 profile by Bernard Weinraub.

The New York Times Caryn James reviews Nightjohn.

Reaching Out of a Painful Past
Cynthia Griffin, Burnett’s associate producer on Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property, writes about the production.

Milestone Films
Milestone is the distributor for Killer of Sheep


  1. All Burnett quotations are from a previously unpublished interview I conducted in San Francisco in April 2001, with additions and clarifications made by Burnett via e-mail in February 2003.

About The Author

Nelson Kim is a writer and filmmaker based in New York City. He teaches film at Columbia University and Fordham University and contributes regularly to the website Hammer to Nail.

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