Filmmaker Charles Burnett on 'Killer of Sheep'

Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep, the famed portrait of life in the Watts area of Los Angeles in the 1970s, was recently re-released. In this week's Wisdom Watch, Burnett discusses the perseverance required to finally win an audience for the film.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, can our producer Teshima just tell you about the film that wore here down?

But first, every so often, you want to talk things over with someone who's not just smart but wise. That's why we created Wisdom Watch, where we ask some of our most respected elders to guide us through challenging and important issues.

Today, Charles Burnett. He may be the most influential filmmaker you've never heard of. He's the winner of a MacArthur Genius award. He's worked with some of Hollywood's biggest stars. And his most respected work, which started out as a film-school project, was one of the first 50 films to be included in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry, and yet for 30 years, it was rarely seen.

We're pleased to be joined by filmmaker Charles Burnett from NPR West.

Welcome.

Mr. CHARLES BURNETT (Filmmaker): Thank you. It's a pleasure being here.

MARTIN: So how sick are you of being called the most famous filmmaker nobody ever heard of?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BURNETT: It's strange and it's fair, actually, because, you know, being the most famous filmmaker that no one's heard of is kind of strange.

MARTIN: But if you open up any sort of treatise on, you know, important works in film, you're in it. And yet, most people have never seen your signature work. I think it's probably right.

Mr. BURNETT: Yes.

MARTIN: Does that hurt?

Mr. BURNETT: No.

MARTIN: No?

Mr. BURNETT: No, because I think, originally, the film was never meant to be shown theatrically. And it was just a student film, and it was made for small group of people, and I never imagine it to go beyond that.

MARTIN: Well, let's just let people know what we're talking about if they're not aware. I'm talking about your 1977 film, "Killer of Sheep." It's a movie that centered on family life in South Central Los Angeles in the 1970s. I'd like to play a short clip from the introduction.

(Soundbite of movie, "Killer of Sheep")

Unidentified Man: You are not a child anymore. You soon will be a (bleep) man. Now start learning what life is about now, son.

MARTIN: So hard to just play a clip of a film like this. First of all, it's beautifully shot. It's in black and white. It's very - what's the word they would use? Sort of impressionistic. It's just the - it really is something that has to be seen to be fully experienced. Do you agree?

Mr. BURNETT: Yes.

MARTIN: Yeah. So how did you get the idea for the film?

Mr. BURNETT: I grew up in a neighborhood, but having gone to school, you sort of change, you know, in many ways. And, you know, at the time, there was this notion that you were a spokesman for the black community and so forth, if you can believe that. And you realize soon that that wasn't the case. And so if you wanted to represent the people, you have to represent them in a kind of objective way and let the story speak for itself. And this is like a slice of life. And the film posed a question, how would you help Stan? How can you help his situation without the film telling you to do ABC?

MARTIN: And Stan, being the - Stan is the protagonist. He…

Mr. BURNETT: Yes.

MARTIN: …the title comes from the fact that he works in a slaughterhouse.

Mr. BURNETT: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: So how did it happen that it did get released?

Mr. BURNETT: It first screened at Howard University, and there was some conference that was going on. And that's how the film took off, really. Then UCLA archives, less than 10 years ago, restored the print. And then that's when Milestone got involved and wanted to distribute the film.

MARTIN: You were born in 1944 in Vicksburg, Mississippi.

Mr. BURNETT: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: What did you want to do when you were growing up?

Mr. BURNETT: I mean, I wanted to be, I think, a pilot in the beginning.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BURNETT: But I have a speech impediment. And so I was told that, you know, you'll never be a pilot because of that, you know. And that sort of crushed my world, in a way. And then I was playing the trumpet, and then I got into electronics and thought I was going to engineer and things like that. But I remember mostly about how clear it was. I was disenchanted with the school system. And I realize then that there was something going on that was damaging, and damaging young kids and not nurturing. And I remember saying that I'd like to write about this someday or talk about this someday.

MARTIN: You must have gone to segregated schools - forgive me - you must have got into segregated schools.

Mr. BURNETT: Well, I grew up in Los Angeles, and the schools were segregated there. And L.A. was just like the South in more ways than one, but it wasn't like it had blocks and blocks of predominantly black areas.

MARTIN: How do you think that affected your filmmaking, your art?

Mr. BURNETT: Well, looking back, what you realize that there's no images of black people. If you went to school in the South, to some degree, you had a better chance of being aware of black contributions. In L.A., you got, you know, basically the history of white people and their accomplishments, you know? There was no images about people of color. And when you get older, you realize, oh, all the of, you know, history of the things that you've done, there's so much there, you know, that needs to be exposed.

MARTIN: You know what's funny about your career is that most people think of, you know, the young filmmakers as being sort of all full of energy and that they kind of slow down and rest on their laurels as they get older. But you've actually been more productive as you've gotten older. Why is that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BURNETT: I don't know if I've been more productive. I've been struggling all the time, you know.

MARTIN: Well, you put out more films.

Mr. BURNETT: But not as much as I'd like, because like most independent filmmakers, it's far and in between before you make a film. You know, I wish I was making a film every year, every other year.

MARTIN: Well, you've done some films like after "Killer of Sheep." You did "My Brother's Wedding," which is also a kind of a small release, a sort of small film. But you also did "To Sleep with Anger" with Danny Glover, who was a, relatively, for you, a big budget film which many people consider a classic. You also did - it's made for TV movie with - from Oprah Winfrey Productions, "The Wedding." How do you see those projects? Do you get as much satisfaction out of them? Do you feel like you're compromising when you do films like that, that are meant to be more commercial?

Mr. BURNETT: Well, yes. You're always compromising in that sense. Because there's someone looking at your shoulder you have to write a script and get it approved, and it's always evaluated. In any step of the way, someone is always, you know, staring down your back. I think - but you have to learn to work within those conditions, you know. And that's the art of filmmaking, I think.

MARTIN: One of the themes of your work - if you don't mind my calling it that - is the idea of how the modern world kind of alienates us from ourselves. In "Killer of Sheep," I think one of the things that people who like the film love are the small moments of grace and joy. Here's a moment when, you know, Stan sort of holds a coffee cup against this cheek.

(Soundbite of the movie, "Killer of Sheep")

Mr. HENRY SANDERS (Actor): (As Stan) What does this remind you of when you hold it next to your cheek? Like, didn't it remind you of when you're making love, the warm before it gets to the time?

MARTIN: It's a wonderful memory. He's dancing with his wife in the kitchen. It's a wonderful moment. And it's just these little moments that give grace to his otherwise very difficult life.

In "To Sleep with Anger," which is a film, I think, might be your most widely-known film because it's easy as to get. It has a big star, Danny Glover, and Sheryl Lee Ralph. One of the themes deals with this whole question of remaining true to the roots.

(Soundbite of the movie, "To Sleep with Anger")

Mr. DANNY GLOVER (Actor): (As Harry) My daddy never gave me anything without my having to sweat for it. Every summer, we had to pimp all the big mamas (unintelligible), and go to church all day on Sunday.

MARTIN: And I just wonder if there's something you want to tell us about that. Why you think that matters?

Mr. BURNETT: Well, I think it's important, and having the foundation is really a key to one's survival, in a way. And we had that kind of culture in may neighborhoods. You know, we had a porch life. We had people who were from the South, and everyone knew almost everyone on the block and a couple of blocks behind that, you know. But years later, you find that that's absent now, in a certain sense. And then you sort of relate that to the problems in the neighborhood, you know.

And so, I remember myself walking home one day, and I had this really urge to get some greens - some mustard greens or collard greens or something like that. And when I was a kid, I hated that stuff, you know. And for some reason, I couldn't live another moment without it. So I rushed to the store and bought some, didn't know who to cook them. I just put them in the hot water and just cooked them and eat them as they were.

And I thought about that, and I said, well, where did that come from? And other things like whistling some tunes that my mother used to play a lot, you know. And I had to track them down and realized, oh this is - these melodies, this melody that's swimming around your head are coming from. And then, when I did "Killer of Sheep," there's all these music I used and they created these images, helped me create these images.

MARTIN: You are not the only African-American artist who's concerned about a sense of loss of relationship with the past. I know this is a big concern of August Wilson's in his plays. But there are some people who feel that, you know, people in the black community sometimes bludgeon each other with the past, you know, keeping it real is this big preoccupation of some, and that that's - it's kind of a way to keep people in line in a way that sometimes is not helpful, that there's a lot about the past that really could be left behind. You know, the way children are sometimes treated with a kind of a brutality that - in fact, that you capture very starkly in the "Killer of Sheep." I mean, your opening scene is a parent slapping a young boy across the face.

So I guess what I'm saying is that there's a lot about the past that African-Americans have experienced in this country that really is best left behind. And I don't know. I guess just wonder why is nostalgia so important to so many African-American artists?

Mr. BURNETT: Personally, if we should forget about the past, I mean, other cultures are very much aware of their past and they celebrate their pasts, you know, their ancestries and things like that, and they worship it. I think we're the only ones who have this sort of denial, I think, and self-hate. If you look at these stories and these people who survived, there's so much wealth in the past, things that can inform us in many ways. When I read slave narratives, I'm just amazed, and it gets (unintelligible) because I realized that these people have gone through such hardships and survived. That - I mean, I can't complain. But I think these people has to be looked at in sort of heroic terms, because we're here because of what they did.

MARTIN: What do you say to young filmmakers coming up today - very different world in the world you started in, very different movie business than the one you started out in the '70s. Any message you have for them?

Mr. BURNETT: Well, it's hard because when we were in film school, there was no dream idea about going in Hollywood, really. So I think we had an advantage of doing a lot of experimentation and growing. It's very difficult to find your voice. It's very difficult to explore your own sensibilities and things like that. It's always someone else's material. It's always someone else's taking your concepts and reworking them into an extension of their ideas and things like that.

And I think it's a problem with art if you tend to develop ideas of your own, you know, and can't make mistakes and survive and things like that. And this business doesn't allow for that. It's all about time management and saying the right thing to the right people, and that sort of thing.

MARTIN: How have you stayed in that in all these years?

Mr. BURNETT: I'm not that successful, tell you the truth. I mean, I just barely do, in a sense, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BURNETT: You know, you have the kids in college, you know, you wonder where you're going to pay for this tuition, you know, and things like that. You know, some people, it's not an issue. But for me it's, you know, - so because of that, I look at myself on one level as doing okay in terms developing my craft, but financially, I haven't been that successful.

MARTIN: If you had to do it over again - if you were starting your career today?

Mr. BURNETT: I wouldn't be in film if I started, I think, today, honestly.

MARTIN: Do you think your era has passed?

Mr. BURNETT: Well, things are cyclic, and they come back. If someone breaks through with a decent film or something like that, and it starts making money, I think the thing has to be where - art film has to do very at the box office. And they can. I mean, I was quite surprised that - what Milestone did with "Killer of Sheep" in a sense. And it's not a film for everyone.

MARTIN: Re-releasing it?

Mr. BURNETT: Yes, and it did very well. And it's not a film for everybody, I'm sure. But there's films I've done that have gotten poor release. And they're looked as being failures in a way, as opposed to looking at what were the problems in releasing the film.

MARTIN: Well, there's hope.

Mr. BURNETT: (unintelligible)

MARTIN: Well, at least the "Killer of Sheep" has been released. There's hope.

Mr. BURNETT: Oh, yes.

MARTIN: It's being seen actually fairly widely now.

Mr. BURNETT: Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: Yeah. What are you working on now?

Mr. BURNETT: Well, we've just finished a film in Namibia about the liberation movement of southwest Africa. It follows a life, to some extent, of Sam Nujoma. It's basically about the people's movement of Namibia to gain their independence. It's a really long film.

MARTIN: Okay, sounds interesting. I look forward to it.

Mr. BURNETT: Good.

MARTIN: Charles Burnett is an independent filmmaker. He's based in Los Angeles. He joined us from NPR West in Culver City, California.

Mr. Burnett, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. BURNETT: Always been my pleasure.

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