In the late 1980s and early ’90s Hollywood released a spate of films about life in the ‘hood — among them Dennis Hopper’s Colors, John Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood, and the Hughes brothers’ Menace II Society — that created a space for audiences to talk about, and romanticize, the real-life social and economic disparities that plagued such neighborhoods as Compton, Inglewood, and South Central Los Angeles. While the quality of these films varies, most are easily characterized by their combination of Scorsese-esque violence and apocalyptic language, which serve alternately to mythologize and criminalize the same characters that were, and still are, routinely depicted as “predators” on the nightly news.
Enter Charles Burnett, whose 1990 release, To Sleep with Anger, seemed to have an anomalous presence in contemporary black film. Set in South Central Los Angeles with an all-black cast, Burnett’s sleeper-hit lacked gratuitous violence, “upliftment” speeches and, most notably, the bangin’, commodifiable hip-hop soundtrack that had become a staple of ’90s-era neo-blaxploitation. Instead, he adapted black folklore for a modern context, telling the story of a well-to-do family whose members came up in the South, but had long since settled in L.A., and their plague-like visitor Harry, a peculiar old Southern acquaintance. A familiar devil, Harry (played by Danny Glover) shows up on the stoop one day and makes his pallet on the family’s floor, inviting other drifters to drink and play cards in the living room. Unlike such regular old bad guys as the Hughes brothers’ O-Dog, Harry is an underhanded, psychological type of villain. He creeps under everyone’s skin by uncovering secrets and reminding individuals of past shame.
While To Sleep with Anger could be seen as an effort to connect back to Southern folk traditions (which may have something to do with the director’s autobiography; he was, after all, born in Mississippi and raised in South Central), Burnett’s 1995 film The Glass Shield seems like his recourse to a more genre-driven, good cop/bad cop formula. Starring Ice Cube as a man framed for murder and Michael Boatman as J.J. Johnson, the token black officer at L.A.’s Edgemar station who unwittingly becomes part of a racist justice system, the film reads like a rejoinder to its blaxploitative forerunners. Yet Burnett claims The Glass Shield is not unlike To Sleep with Anger “in terms of its concerns.” Indeed, the glue that binds his filmography is a protracted, individual preoccupation with good and evil.
Burnett’s proper analogue might be Spike Lee, in the sense that both directors portray black characters in a way that is neither simply comic nor simply melodramatic, and orient their work to recast the “Hollywood shuffle” stereotypes cranked out by popular films (which Lee dismantles in his 2000 film Bamboozled). Burnett — whose most recent film, Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (2002), discusses how conceptions of the 1861 slave revolt shift across racial lines — says it’s hard to create dialogue around race in mainstream Hollywood. In fact, he notes that few black directors control their own work, partly because they don’t own the means of production and have to cope with a national dearth of black theaters. For mainstream directors, filmmaking becomes “like trying to put together all these different parts of you, with other people telling you how to do it.” Asked if he’s speaking from personal experience, Burnett demurs. After all, as an independent director, he’s always the man behind the camera: “I do most everything on my own.”
The Charles Burnett film series, “Telling Stories,” at the Pacific Film Archive at UC Berkeley (2575 Bancroft Way at Bowditch), begins at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, April 1 with a free screening of Nightjohn (1996), and closes Saturday, April 10, with a panel discussion. Burnett appears in person for several of the events. Visit BAMPFA.Berkeley.edu or call 510-642-0808 for more information.