For over thirty years Charles Burnett has been at the forefront of American independent cinema, yet most of his films remain hidden cinematic gems, all too rarely screened. It may be that Burnett’s subtle chronicles of African-American everyday lives lack the sensationalism of many of his contemporaries. Or that America was just slow to acknowledge the achievements of black independent cinema. Whatever the reason, the tide has now turned: the re-release of Burnett’s acclaimed Killer of Sheep at last year’s London Film Festival and this year’s Berlinale, and the BFI retrospective throughout July mean that the director is finally, if belatedly, getting the recognition he deserves.
Joel Karamath: The Library of Congress has finally declared Killer of Sheep one of the most important contemporary American films. What’s it like to receive such an accolade after thirty years?
Charles Burnett: Well, it’s strange, looking back on it after all these years, as the film was never meant to be shown theatrically, because it was my student thesis film.
JK: Just as you started studying at UCLA there was a marked shift in the screen portrayal of African-Americans in mainstream productions, moving away from the optimistic Civil Rights-era movies to the more nihilistic vision of many Black Exploitation movies. How did that affect you?
CB: The reason we got into filmmaking was to try and affect the negative images Hollywood had been producing about people of colour. And then the Black Exploitation films came along while we were in school, and that became just another element that we were fighting against.
JK: I once read that one of the reasons you went to film school was to dodge the draft and not go to Vietnam. Is that true?
CB: Yes, I had irritated one of the people at the draft board because I was late in registering and they read the riot act at me, so I knew I was going at that point. But then I realised that if I took a full programme of courses I could get a student deferment, so I started taking a lot of classes and that’s how I valued education.
Interview by Joel Karamath
Read the rest of the interview in our summer print issue, which is a jazz and cinema special to coincide with the re-release of Burnett’s Killer of Sheep. To celebrate the belated recognition of one of American independent cinema’s greats, we look at the influence of jazz on film in the US with articles on Shirley Clarke, John Cassavetes, Jim Jarmusch and Beat cinema among others. For more information on where to buy the magazine and how to subscribe, please contact amanda [at] wallflowerpress.co.uk.