- The Washington Times - Friday, February 8, 2008

Filmmaker Charles Burnett didn’t always want to tell stories in four dimensions. At first, the longtime Los Angeles resident thought he might succeed at using just two.

“The first opportunity I had I got a 35-millimeter camera,” says the 63-year-old. “I thought I was going to be a photojournalist and started taking pictures of the city.”

He soon ran across someone who had overdosed and kept his shutter snapping. “A girl who was on crutches came up to me,” he recalls. “She was very nice. She said, ‘Why are you taking pictures?’ And I just said, ‘For fun.’ She said, ‘Even of tragedies?’ It hit me right through the heart. It stopped everything.”

Mr. Burnett says that this mild-mannered reproof made him feel “obtrusive” and “callous.” So he decided to adapt his storytelling skills to the medium of film, where he could use fictional characters to document the very real woes he’d observed in the world around him. He had no idea that someday he’d be compared to the Italian neorealists and touted as one of the country’s most important black filmmakers.

His first full-length feature was “Killer of Sheep,” a UCLA graduate thesis film he made in 1973 that hauntingly observes a black family’s struggles in mid-‘70s Watts. Next came 1983’s “My Brother’s Wedding,” about a young black man trying to find his place among friends reveling in dangerous street life and a brother who’s climbing the class ladder.

Other films in Mr. Burnett’s repertoire include 1990’s “To Sleep With Anger” (which explores black middle-class values), 1994’s “The Glass Shield” (a racially charged police drama) and 1999’s “The Annihilation of Fish” (a quirky romantic comedy featuring an interracial couple).

Mr. Burnett has never been interested in simply making a film for financial gain or entertainment value; his movies have something serious to say, and given his early photographic inclination, it’s not surprising that they often feel like slide shows replete with indelible images — particularly the still-poignant-after-all-these-years “Killer of Sheep,” which was selected for the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 1990.

Film is “an expensive media,” says the moviemaker. “The world is at crisis stage. Some of us — people of color, for example — have always been struggling, and I think it’s important to try to address all these issues.”

Of course, making independent films that don’t shy away from tough issues does have its drawbacks. Mr. Burnett hasn’t worked as much as some less-scrupulous but better-funded writer/directors, and despite winning him several awards, his films haven’t always found wide audiences. “But,” says the filmmaker, “I’ve been able to send my kids to school; I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to put food on the table. I can’t ask for more than that.”

Recent months have seen a huge surge of interest in Mr. Burnett’s work, due in large part to last year’s theatrical re-release of “Killer of Sheep” (which, previously, had never been properly released) and the arrival of “The Charles Burnett Collection” DVD, which includes “Sheep,” both the original version and a new director’s cut of “My Brother’s Wedding,” and several shorts.

After its reintroduction, “Killer of Sheep” made it into the top three of several critics’ best-of-2007 lists, and Metacritic has it as the second-best-reviewed film of the year after “Ratatouille.” Clocking in at just 83 minutes, the spare, relatively plotless film is amazingly efficient and affecting as it follows around an increasingly desensitized slaughterhouse worker and his family. That the dazzling work still feels utterly relevant makes it seem all the more deserving of the praise it has received and the attention it has brought its cast and crew. (Mr. Burnett — by the way — wrote, directed, produced, shot and edited the work.)

Kaycee Moore, who played the wife of the “Killer of Sheep’s” protagonist, was surprised that this, her very first feature film resurfaced to such thunderous applause. Her sister had been sending her Internet posts for several years about the film’s growing fan base, but Ms. Moore says she “never really paid attention to it.” Now the actress (who starred in three other films after her on-screen debut) is getting plenty of interview requests and invitations to attend screenings.

“It’s given me a little hope that somebody might see [the film] and use that old girl for something else,” she says. (Directors, take note.)

Mr. Burnett, on the other hand, is taking in all the recognition but finds it “hard to continue talking about” work he did some three decades ago. At a certain point, he observes, no amount of acclaim “helps you when you’re confronting a blank page. You still have to come up with the next story.”

Tomorrow through March 5, the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center presents “The Films of Charles Burnett.” For featured films, showtimes and ticket information, call 301/495-6720 or visit www.afi.com/silver.

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