Until recently, Charles Burnett was one of the undersung heroes of independent American film, despite having made acclaimed shorts and features since the late 1960s, including the hoodoo-mystical, Southern-transplant family drama To Sleep with Anger(1990), starring Danny Glover, which earned the writer-director two Independent Spirit Awards and the American Film Institute’s Maya Deren Award. The problem was, very few people had seen Burnett’s bluesy, forlorn 1977 masterpiece, Killer of Sheep, which had been mouldering in the archives at UCLA, his film-school alma mater, long after the Library of Congress chose to include it in its prestigious National Film Registry. That all changed last year when Milestone Film & Video restored the film from degraded, extant 16mm prints and released it theatrically, to near-unanimous hosannas of praise.
Set in the Watts section of Los Angeles, Killer of Sheep certainly didn’t look or feel like other films about urban black experience in the mid ’70s, when Hollywood was in thrall to blaxploitation. It was moody and melancholy, gorgeously slow and careworn as it alighted on random episodes in the life of slaughterhouse worker Stan (Henry G. Sanders), a hangdog husband and father of two mired in the sleepy, aimless enervation of underclass existence. Not much happens in the film: two men half-heartedly plot a bank robbery on the front porch; children throw rocks in vacant lots and improvise a rooftop leaping contest; Stan and his friends try to rebuild a car. In fact, the futility of activity – whether it’s the drone-like, workaday kind on the killing floor, or the Sisyphean effort of hauling a $15 car engine onto a pickup – is a persistent theme. Yet Burnett brings such comic poignancy and graceful poetry to his depiction of ghetto ennui that the film radiates with a kind of depressive charm.
With the exception of his tragicomic 1983 follow-up My Brother’s Wedding (recut and released in tandem with Milestone’s Killer of Sheep DVD), Burnett’s career since the completion of his groundbreaking thesis film has been a string of minor successes and tele-movie near-misses. Many of his efforts (Nightjohn, Selma, Lord, Selma, Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property) have dealt with the civil rights movement or some aspect of African-American history. Another film, The Glass Shield (1994), starring Ice Cube and Michael Boatman, dramatized corruption and racism in the Los Angeles Police Department. And in 2003, the Mississippi native contributed an episode to Martin Scorsese’s omnibus PBS documentary The Blues. But mainstream acceptance, it is safe to say, has mostly eluded the longtime filmmaker. Nevertheless, like Stan or Pierce Mundy or William Faulkner’s Dilsey, he endures.
Just last month, Burnett debuted his new widescreen docudrama Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation, which was the opening-night selection of the 2008 New York African Film Festival. Loosely based on a memoir by Sam Nujoma, Namibia’s first president and the former leader of SWAPO (South West Africa People’s Organization), the film stars Danny Glover and Carl Lumbly, and tells the epic story of that nation’s 60-year struggle to free itself from the yoke of South African rule. Prior to the screening, the soft-spoken but voluble Burnett sat down to chat with me about the late-arriving critical canonization of Killer of Sheep, his student days at UCLA, and the logistics of mounting Namibia – a massive, multilingual production – in a faraway country.
You’ve been making films since the late ’60s, and you’ve received a lot of honors in that time – a MacArthur “genius grant,” Howard University’s Paul Robeson Award, fellowships from the Rockefeller Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, and so on. Yet maybe it’s fair to say that a lot of American filmgoers only came to know your work because of the rerelease last year of Killer of Sheep. Has the attention that film received changed anything for you or brought anything new to the table?
It’s still a struggle. I think what made it happen was that Dennis Doros and Amy Heller, who run Milestone Films, they’re the ones who went all the way in publicizing the film and getting it out there. It was really exhausting. I came back when it was almost done, and the film was out, and I got the tail end of it. That was exhausting, having to go around speaking. But that’s what you want is to get it out there, and it was their efforts that made it happen. But no, I mean, it gets your foot in the door – that’s about it. It all depends on the project. If it’s not what they want, your reputation doesn’t mean anything, as far as I’m concerned. It hasn’t affected my career any.
Did it at least allow you an opportunity to look back on that work with fresh eyes?
I’ve seen it so many times, over the years, I won’t even look at it. And to me, there’s a lot of things in there that I cringe at when I see them, you know, they’re sort of amplified over time. Particularly now, when all the attention is brought to it. Like [cringing], Ooh, I really want to get past this scene! But it wasn’t really meant to be shown theatrically. It stayed in the can for years and small places would screen it, so it wasn’t a big issue. I don’t look at it with fresh eyes. What I did experience one time when I had to look at each scene because of Ross Lipman, who did the restoration over at the UCLA archives – when he was doing the grading for the film, timing it – it was very nostalgic for me, looking back at people who had changed. A lot of them aren’t here anymore, you know, it was a different community. It was pretty rough then, but everything has changed tremendously. It seemed like it was a more favorable time in those days. People could work and survive without having had a college education, you could work as a mechanic – cars were simple enough where you can learn from your father and so forth. And now, if you don’t have any kind of education at all, you can’t be that. It’s just more difficult for a person to survive. So you look at all that and you see where things are going and it’s very tragic. When I was doing the film, I thought it [dealt with] a lot of issues and problems in the period, but now it’s even worse.
To me, Killer of Sheep is a fresh and vital film. The music adds a melancholy dimension and yet it’s not a depressing film. There’s a blissful quality to the everydayness of it. Did you approach filming at that time with a lot of confidence, or were you groping for a way to tell a story?
Was Killer of Sheep a reaction against blaxploitation movies as well?
Well, we were very much reacting against Hollywood. Most of us came into film in the ’60s with a concern about the images that were perpetuated by Hollywood movies, the stereotypes from Birth of a Nation on, and then vaudeville going back even further, so that was always implanted in us to try to correct that, even though we knew at the time, to some extent, that we weren’t going to get into Hollywood. But somehow, we felt that our films were going to be out there in small communities, shown in church groups or activist situations, to correct something Hollywood had been imposing on the community. Most of the people at that time looked at film as an art form, and also as a means of social change, not just to entertain people – sort of like a vanity piece for one’s fantasies – but something that was meaningful to the community. At the time everyone felt that you had an obligation to say something that would solve a lot of these issues.
So part of your motivation as a filmmaker was to make something that would speak to and resonate within the black community?
What I wanted to do was make a film where I didn’t tell the audience, the viewer, “Do ABC, and then D will happen.” I didn’t want to describe anything. Except what the film does is say, Having seen it, how would go about trying to resolve some of these issues that Stan has? And that was all you could do, really, because it was for people who didn’t live in the community who made all these policies without having any interaction with these folks.
Can give me a synopsis of your new film?
The film is called Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation, and it chronicles the whole liberation movement to some extent, a large part of it. It’s framed by Sam Nujoma, who became head of the SWAPO [South West Africa People’s Organization] in exile and he carried on with a number of other people, getting support from countries like Cuba and places like that to help support the liberation struggle in South West Africa – Namibia was called South West Africa before. I forget when they changed the name. And he went into exile after a massacre that happened in his hometown, and he was charged with aiding the revolt that caused the massacre. So he had to go into exile, and it was in exile that he started the movement. SWAPO tried to regain control of South West Africa.
So many of your films have been shot and set in L.A. and the South, I’m wondering what took you to Namibia.
I was invited to go into Namibia to work on this film. The script came to me, and I first thought they were searching out a number of directors, and I was one and I said yes and that’s when the process started. I got a script that was very good – well, it was a TV script. We went over to talk about it. They wanted a bigger project, more of a feature film, and that’s what got me interested. I was always interested in the subject because I was going to UCLA in the sixties, and the whole liberation movement was something people would talk about all the time. And I had a superficial understanding of SWAPO and what they were all about, and this gave me an opportunity to be a part of it.
What form was the script in when it came to you?
The script was well written, but it was based on a novel, for one thing, Sam Nujoma’s autobiography, which was called Where Others Wavered. But we wanted to go beyond that, because the liberation movement wasn’t one man, it was a whole people and the surrounding states and then all these other supporting countries like Cuba, South Korea, China. So it had to encompass all of those things.
Did you draw pretty heavily on his autobiography in order to develop the script?
It was framed on his autobiography, you know – you saw where he was born and the problems he had with his father – but it was very clear that we had to do it not just about Sam Nujoma, but all these other people who were involved in that movement. That was one of the criticisms of his biography, the fact that a lot of details were left out about important people.
Was the experience of filming in Namibia different than you anticipated?
I didn’t know what to expect, but fundamentally it was the same. Culturally, there was a problem just in terms of how people do things, the pacing and things like that. The difficult part was – well, casting was hard because we had over 200 speaking parts and the names were not familiar sounds, and things like that. I’d end up casting people from earlier in the film for another part. It was complicated and confusing, but it’s a wonderful place, Africa, to film. Where else can you go where there’s elephants in the road and things like that? And it gave me a chance to see Africa and experience it.
You drew on a pool of local talent there. How did you go about finding the people who would be involved?
It was supposed to have been a joint production between the Namibian government, the Film Commission, and this organization called PACON, which is the Pan-African Centre of Namibia, but the government started putting money in and continued to put money in, so they got to a point where they couldn’t stop. There’s not an experienced crew, [or] enough people in Namibia to do a big project, so they had to bring in people from South Africa, because they have a big crew base there. And we brought some people in from the States. The Namibians had worked on a number of films, because they shoot a lot in Namibia now, but they were not in key positions. So we gave them a chance to keep wardrobe and hair and makeup and things like that, and they had an opportunity to work.
Can you tell me a little bit about Danny Glover’s involvement? He’s somebody you’ve worked with in the past.
Yeah, Danny’s always a trouper. He’s well known in Africa, and he added a great deal to the film. Marketing, you know, when they talk about the film, it’s Carl Lumbly and Danny Glover. That’s not to take anything away from the African actors, it’s just that he’s known and we’re trying to get some marketing. Danny plays a reverend, a church person who is a composite of a number of other people that we couldn’t fit in, so we just consolidated all of these characters into the one he plays. I forget what year we started shooting this thing, but he was busy trying to finance his own film, and he was traveling around Africa looking at locations when we approached him. In many ways, it’s a low-budget film – we didn’t have the money to pay all these people and actors what they deserved. That was number one, and two, he was busy doing research on his film. But he said we would do it if we could find the right dates, and we were able to give him a period and he came and it was really great. He extended himself a great deal.
He’s been very politically active, too.
Absolutely. He’s known all over the world. He speaks at a lot of humanitarian functions and supports a lot of groups that really need help and a voice, you know, so he’s been very good.
This is your most ambitious undertaking in terms of the scale of the film, isn’t it?
It is, you know, but fundamentally they’re all the same. It’s just another day, a little more people, but you just focus, you have good assistant directors and production managers and when everything is going well, then it’s – I don’t know if it’s any more difficult than doing a very small, character-driven film. Ironically, I think it may seem easier doing the smaller films, and in many ways it probably can be more complicated. This wasn’t complicated on that level at all.
Even logistically, filming in a place you’re unfamiliar with, and managing over 200 actors speaking in different dialects? How do you coordinate all of that?
I think you can’t look at it as problematic. You just take one step at a time. You’d be surprised how simple it is. If you have people – if you plan it right in the beginning, in the production meetings – you need this, you need that. The problem we had wasn’t the size of the film. We had a lot of people who did it for the first time, and that was the problem. We had a person who had control of the cars and in the script it asked for a 1940-something car, you know, an old car. So we come to the set and there’s a ’72 Jaguar, and I said, “No, this is 1946.” He said, “But it’s an old car.” So it was a learning curve. That was the hardest part, doing things with people who really didn’t have a lot of experience. This was the one area that bothered me somewhat. But other than that, everyone was great. I mean, there were concerns about malaria – which you don’t get here, necessarily – and so it was those kinds of concerns, basically. I was living in this hotel right on the Zambezi River, and we would leave in the morning and see if there were any hippos and alligators around. And that was exciting. I’ve been on shoots that had far less in terms of scope [but were] more frustrating, in the States.
How would say your filmmaking style has evolved since your days at UCLA?
Oooh, that’s a good question because…I don’t know how I can answer that. Each film is different and life is so varied, you do different things intentionally. You try to grow by not being safe, but by taking chances. You certainly gain confidence in doing a film when you’re in the process of doing it. And beforehand, writing it, it’s always like, is this a movie? is this a script? or whatever it is. It’s getting over the hump and those doubts. For me, it’s always starting from square one, because you don’t want to keep imposing the same style. Each [film] requires for me its own approach.
What would say the highlight of your career in independent film has been thus far?[Long pause] I think, basically, that I’m still here. I’m not working as often as I like, but there’s always a possibility. And I make a living off of it – not a lot of money – but I’m surviving. I think that’s the main thing.