In 1999, the Nashville (then Independent) Film Festival presented director Charles Burnett with its first Freedom in Film Award, an honor bestowed on filmmakers for their refusal to compromise. It was a big deal: the award would later be given to recipients such as Robert Redford, Susan Sarandon and Harry Belafonte, after Burnett had established its cred. But there was one damper on the occasion—the audience had almost no idea who Burnett was. That was clear when someone asked the guest of honor how much he’d been influenced by Spike Lee—who made his first feature almost a decade after Burnett’s.
I’ve forgotten Burnett’s exact reply, which was patient and not at all pained. But the whole episode pointed out the paradox of Burnett’s career: he’s a filmmaker who seems revered by more people than have actually seen his work. That is especially true of his 1977 feature Killer of Sheep, a beautiful, haunting slice-of-life drama about a Watts slaughterhouse worker (played by Henry Gayle Sanders) who keeps the wolf from the door by butchering sheep.
When Burnett came here in 1999, in the midst of a career marked by one struggle after another—a fight with Miramax over his underrated 1994 police-corruption drama The Glass Shield, clashes with a key actor shooting his 1983 film My Brother’s Wedding—Killer of Sheep had already been named one of the first 50 films in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry, alongside Citizen Kane, Gone With the Wind and other classics of the canon. Yet it remained as hard to see as it had been in 1977, before the boom of regional film festivals and boutique distributors.
That changed this year when Milestone Films, Steven Soderbergh and UCLA’s Film & Television Archive united to give Killer of Sheep its first national release—an occasion that not only brought the film unanimous raves but its biggest audience yet. (A DVD box set is expected this fall.) Burnett will return to Nashville Friday night to introduce Killer of Sheep at the Belcourt, where it starts a week’s run. The movie has become one of 2007’s arthouse sensations, and one would hope to find its maker enjoying some measure of commercial and artistic vindication.
Alas, that is not the case. On Tuesday, just moments before the Scene called, Burnett learned that he may be forced to cancel the premiere this month in Los Angeles of his new film Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation, a project he’s been working on for three years. A drama about the South African nation’s first president, Samuel Nujoma, starring Burnett’s To Sleep With Anger cast members Carl Lumbly and Danny Glover, the movie was financed by the Namibian government; it allowed Burnett to work on an epic scale he’d never attempted before—battle scenes, military formations.
So what happened? Nujoma, who still wields considerable clout as leader of Namibia’s SWAPO party, is apparently concerned about a song lyric in one scene that could be construed as a call for battle against neighboring Angola. According to Burnett, he also wants to cut an incident taken from historical record involving the theft of his briefcase and the leakage of sensitive documents. The changes would mean reworking the finished film. For the soft-spoken director—who says he is “very pleased” with the movie—the call came as a crushing, if not unprecedented, blow.
“There is always something new and disturbing that happens,” Burnett says, still somewhat dazed from the setback. “Something comes along and hits you in the solar plexus.” He says that worries about his current project have kept him from delighting in the long-deferred success of Killer of Sheep, which should have been a triumph 30 years in the making.
“The other film sapped all the room for enjoyment,” Burnett says, his voice quiet and wistful. “I was struggling in the middle of a war. I couldn’t enjoy what was going on.”
Even without his current difficulties, Burnett says, Killer of Sheep leaves him with conflicting feelings. The movie’s poetic, concretely detailed evocation of black life in mid-1970s Watts—the quality celebrated by Thom Andersen in his essay film Los Angeles Plays Itself—is what brings back bittersweet memories for Burnett today. “It’s kind of a nostalgia piece now,” he says. “It was much safer then—they didn’t have the guns and drug problems that came up in the 1980s. It was a very dedicated community.”
A black artist, Burnett says, often feels “incumbent upon you to speak for the black community.” With Killer of Sheep, he resisted that pressure. “Film is supposed to pose questions,” he says. “I just wanted to say these are my friends, and these are their lives, without making any judgments.” And yet the film remains fresh three decades later because Burnett didn’t pretend to be spokesman for an entire group of people, or to claim he had solutions for society’s abattoir.
“I wouldn’t have provided answers,” Charles Burnett says, and for the first time in the conversation he laughs. “Who am I [to do that]? I don’t have the answers to my own problems.”
Charles Burnett appears 7:50 p.m. Friday at the Belcourt. A 1999 Scene profile of Burnett can be found online at www.nashvillescene.com.
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