Legendary Black film maker Charles Burnett joins the small group of African American artists who can add “Oscar recipient” to their resumes.
To the general public Burnett may be a relatively unknown Hollywood director. However, to film and television insiders, his fans, and critics, Burnett’s work is not only celebrated, he is considered a pioneer, mentor, visionary, trendsetter, and master film maker.
“I didn’t know what to think,” Burnett explained. “It’s one of those things you never expect, so there was no way it was on my mind. It just took me by surprise. And I’m still surprised.”
It’s a surprising, but welcome, honor for Burnett, an independent filmmaker. For years his work has drawn praise and other accolades but no mention in Academy Award conversations.
His four decade television and filmmaking career sometimes deal with the harsh realities of the African-American experience, without condescension, exploitation, stereotypes, or sensationalism. His work often focuses on the grit, grime and ugliness of life.
Burnett, 73, was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi and moved to Los Angeles as a young child. He made his debut film, “Killer of Sheep” in 1977, as his Master of Fine Arts thesis at the University of California at Los Angeles. His Watts neighborhood was the film’s setting and Burnett utilized his neighbors and friends as actors.
The film, which concerns a Black father in Watts who works in a slaughterhouse, was selected for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1990. The low budget, independent film garnered praise and recognition but wasn’t commercially released until nearly three decades later.
The film director’s career path took some unexpected turns and his first choice was not movie making, which he saw more as a hobby.
“I thought I was going to go into electronics,” Burnett noted. “I just thought I’d be making films on the weekend and showing them to my friends and then making a living doing something else.”
At UCLA his focus, and objective changed. He wanted to tell stories Hollywood wasn’t telling, to make films that Hollywood did not make. Films about people who looked like him.
“Most of us that got into film school wanted to treat people fairly and wanted to show what reality was and wanted to show people of color in a true fashion,” he said.
“You never saw people of color with dignity, as real people” Burnett commented about films made about people in Los Angeles. Regardless, the intent was not fame nor fortune.
“I never intended to make money off of it, just to be real,” he said.
But Burnett actually credits a community college writing teacher for showing him the value of reading and writing thus setting him on course to becoming a filmmaker. Other professors introduced him to cinema and gave him the equipment, the knowledge and inspiration to make deeply personal films.
During his career, Burnett has made small and low-budget to larger budget projects. His 1990 film “To Sleep With Anger,” starred Danny Glover, Sheryl Lee Ralph and Carl Lumbly. That was followed by 1994’s “The Glass Shield,” featuring Ice Cube, Lori Petty and Michael Boatman. Another fan favorite was his 1983 “My Brother’s Wedding.”
“Charles is a true filmmaker,” says Lumbly, who has worked on five projects with Burnett over the years. “He has an eye, he has an ear, and he marries both of them wonderfully. My father used to say — and I’m sure someone else said it first — that ‘things don’t just happen, they happen just. And it may have taken longer than I would’ve liked,’ but I’m thrilled that this honor and recognition is happening for Charles.”
He has written and directed films in multiple genres, from shorts to features and documentaries and is working on a documentary “The Power to Heal” about segregation’s impact on health care. Burnett called segregated health care “one of the worst manifestations” of racism, and a story that many people may not know about or understand.
Burnett received his honorary Oscar on Sat., Nov. 11, at the Academy’s ninth Annual Governors Awards at the Hollywood Center in Los Angeles.