It took 30 years for Charles Burnetts first film, Killer of Sheep (1977), one of the greatest evocations of daily hardship and joy, to receive a proper theatrical release; 17 have passed since The Glass Shield (1994), his scorching, complex look at racism and police corruption, and his last movie to be picked up for distribution. Yet Burnett has never stopped working: MOMAs complete retrospective redresses the neglect this singular filmmaker, the foremost storyteller of African-American lives, has often withstood.
Coming right after the blaxploitation craze of the early to mid-70s and more than a decade before the in-the-hood phase of the early 90s, Killer of Sheep, Burnetts thesis film for UCLA, explores, as Ive written before, what it means to be a man, a woman, a child just barely eking out a marginally comfortable existence. Set in Wattswhere the director, born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1944, has lived (or near) for most of his lifeBurnetts debut unfolds as a series of loose episodes, centering around Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), an abattoir worker weighed down by a sadness he cant explain who finds fleeting pleasure in dancing with his wife (Jaycee Moore) before pulling away, or in the caress of his young daughter (Angela Burnett, the directors niece). As the slaughterhouse employee weathers the unbearable heaviness of being, Burnett perfectly captures the marvels of children at play, never more so than when Stans little girl sings joyously off-key to Earth, Wind & Fires Reasons. (Even in Burnetts lesser projects, like the 1999 civil-rights Disney TV movie Selma, Lord, Selma, he shows a tender respect for kids.)
Angela Burnett turns up in her uncles second film, My Brothers Wedding (1983), this time as a teenager with a big crush on Pierce (Everett Silas), a 30-year-old still living at home withand working forMom and Dad, toiling behind the counter of their dry-cleaning shop. Humming at a droller register than Killer of Sheep, My Brothers Wedding continues the earlier films focus on both the strain of obligations to kin and the odd theatrical grace of commonplace interactions (the latter of which enlivens America Becoming, a 1991 documentary on immigration that Burnett made for PBS).
Dont call your mother Ma-dear, Stan scolds his son in Killer of Sheep, enraged by the boys use of an old-fashioned matriarchal term. The tension between country and city, old ways and new, drives the masterful To Sleep With Anger(1990), starring Danny Glover (in his best performance) as a bumpkin from down home who upends the lives of several generations of friends he visits in South Central L.A. Throughout, Burnett remains ever astute about the complexity of familiesa gift that will undoubtedly enrich his next project, a documentary on Stanley Ann Dunham, President Obamas mother.
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