15 July 2008

TO SLEEP WITH ANGER (Dir. Charles Burnett, 1990, US) - Is Charles Burnett the most important black filmmaker to have emerged out of American cinema?

If fans or critics alike of the American independent movement were asked to name the single most important black filmmaker to have emerged out of the movement many would perhaps cite the obvious choice; Spike Lee and his breakout film, ‘She’s Gotta Have It’. But such a choice is largely determined by what the media has told us about black American cinema, and figures like Spike Lee and Denzel Washington are routinely referred to as influential and important artists. Though nobody is denying the enriching contribution Lee and Washington have brought to American cinema, they fall short of claiming the right to call themselves as independent, marginal figures articulating the concerns of middle class African Americans through a starkly realist approach.

Charles Burnett is one black filmmaker who can claim such a label as his career is the true reflection of the struggles and dilemmas most black filmmakers face when trying to communicate a truth that cannot be vocalised through the blandness of a stylised apolitical mainstream Hollywood cinema. Charles Burnett has always been championed by those who have had the privilege of watching his remarkably unique and bold films but for virtually over a decade he has been sidelined by mainstream film critics and the industry. However, the recent release of his films on DVD especially his startling debut, ‘Killer of Sheep’, made in 1977, reveals how much of the great cinema coming out of the new 70s Hollywood was not solely being directed by nerdy middle class white guys with a love of nouvelle vague auteurs like Godard and Resnais. Unlike his contemporaries (Spike Lee), Burnett struggled to find adequate distribution for his films, and the poor distribution of many of his feature films seemed to prematurely finish off a promising career before it even got started.

Burnett’s last major feature film was ‘The Glass Shield’ in 1994, a studio film made for Miramax who messed around with the final shape of the film before it was given a truncated release into the middle of nowhere. After ‘The Glass Shield’, Burnett’s filmography on IMDB provides a telling illustration of how difficult he found it to make the films he wanted to and on his own terms. Most of the work he has completed since ‘The Glass Shield’ has been for television, and it is so sad to see how such a brilliant and emotionally honest filmmaker like Burnett had to simply surrender his neo realist principles and ideologically truthful depiction of African American community life in order to continue working as an artist. The neglect and dismissal of Burnett is classic Hollywood syndrome, that of feeling threatened by artists who refuse to compromise a view that is somewhat oppositional and radical in relation to traditional apolitical ideologies, as was the case with Burnett’s unflinching representation of an area of African American culture that was rarely seen in films, that of the black middle class family.

‘To Sleep with Anger’ is by far the most complete and fully realised film that Burnett has made to date, and it has also been his most widely accessible film, having been made available on VHS and DVD in the UK through the 90s. The film was recently given a DVD release by the British Film Institute who have long championed his work and importance as a filmmaker, and who are currently showing a season of his films at the BFI South bank in London. Danny Glover’s involvement with the production of the film helped Burnett make the film he wanted, and Glover’s attachment to the project also ensured financing and distribution were relatively easy to secure. Beginning with ‘Killer of Sheep’, all of Burnett’s films have used the motif of the family as a means of exploring tensions that exist within the lives of ordinary, working class African Americans who are trying to attain middle class ideals.

‘To Sleep with Anger’ is a film about a drifter named Harry Mention (Danny Glover) who turns up unexpectedly at the door of his old friend, Gideon, who he has not seen in many a years. Harry’s presence in the house creates havoc amongst the family, eventually leading to violence, and death. Shot with a darkly comic tone, Burnett seems quite ambivalent about Harry’s character because even though he is a bad influence on Gideon’s morally bankrupt son, Harry can also be viewed as a liberating force, helping to transform the lives of a fragmented family and bringing them closer together. At the heart of narrative is a conflict between the old values of the South and the progressive face of urban African American communities that had emerged out of the Reagan era of ghetto politics. The traditions and rituals of the South is strikingly symbolised in Harry who places a great deal of emphasis on superstition unlike Gideon who is a believer of reason and rational thinking.

Beautifully understated direction, supported with a wealth of realist performances, ‘To Sleep with Anger’ is American independent cinema at its finest, and though Burnett was never given the opportunity to stretch himself as a director and explore other cinematic possibilities, his contribution to cinema should be positioned alongside the work of other great ‘humanist’ filmmakers like Rossellini, De Sica and perhaps even Kiarostami.

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