An Incomplete Notion To Begin With: A Conversation with Charles Burnett

The director discusses the trials of his career, the state of the industry, and "The Glass Shield," his drama about a Black police officer.
A.E. Hunt

Charles Burnett

The earliest Charles Burnett film to survive is his second, Several Friends (1969); the first is lost. Several Friends ambles in and out of a day in the lives of different friend groups who don’t intersect but are bound by a looming sense that, for reasons big enough to know but too abstract to confront, they can’t seem to get where they’re trying to go. This sense of a confinement beyond comprehension and just short of being acknowledged has something akin to Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, where aristocrats find themselves inexplicably bound to a dinner party. There are no barriers between them and the exit, not so much as a locked door, but whenever the ne’er do wells get up to go, they find themselves turning back. Other than the obvious class differences, there is a key distinction between the two films. In Several Friends, the Black friends meandering Watts (the southern Los Angeles neighborhood Burnett grew up in) get caught up going nowhere by no magic, metaphor, or even God-like imposition on part of the director, but by the real-life, deeply embedded measures set against them. And yet it presents a problem as abstract to those friends as the spell Buñuel casts on his nobles.

Burnett always sought the timbres of Black sensitivity, humor, love, and pain he saw in his own life, but that Hollywood and the media obscures. He went on to meet the industry his principles were set against after establishing himself as a master filmmaker in and out of UCLA film school and as a figurehead of the L.A. Rebellion, the school’s revered Black Anti-Hollywood movement of the 60s to the 80s. Predictably, the studios labored to neuter Burnett’s films of the things they hadn’t seen before in Black films, but he thwarted their attempts on To Sleep With Anger (1990) and The Glass Shield (1994) enough that they still feel solidly his own. When he transitioned to TV movies like Disney’s Nightjohn (1996), Hallmark’s The Annihilation of Fish (1999), and PBS’s Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (2003), to stay afloat, the executive overhead became more invasive and the resulting films fading gradations of his imprint. Today, as many of the L.A. Rebellion filmmakers still do, he struggles against the system to get the right movies made.

Charles Burnett spoke to us about The Glass Shield—about a Black police officer named J.J. (Michael Boatman) who finds himself swept up in an otherwise all white police department’s conspiracy to convict Teddy Woods (Ice Cube) of a murder he did not commit—the trials of his career, the state of the industry today and the kinds of stories he finds worth telling.

NOTEBOOK: J.J.’s police fantasy of earning his “gold shield” by sacrificing himself in the field reminded me of a line in Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880, where Dubois observes that it took for Black men to kill in a white man’s war for whites to finally see Black men as men. Similarly, in J.J.’s fantasy, he only earns his “medal” among white police officers by sacrificing his life for a white cause.

CHARLES BURNETT: It was based on a comic book theme. It had those deep blue and yellowish colors to it. J.J. was a product of being idealistic about everything in the world, being a super cop and all that. So I think that’s where that came from.

NOTEBOOK: Nightjohn and The Glass Shield share that blue/yellow lighting contrast. Is there a throughline there?

BURNETT: I think there’s a similar sense looking into a comic book as there is looking into the past.

NOTEBOOK: Did you ever revisit the other anti-police film you tried to get off the ground with PBS before To Sleep with Anger?

BURNETT: I didn’t. I haven’t done that. I’m thinking about it. My son wants to redo My Brother’s Wedding, so we’re playing with that idea.

NOTEBOOK: You’ve said before that My Brother’s Wedding is unfinished.

BURNETT: The editor had some mental issues; he was bipolar and had control over the material. Basically, he did whatever he wanted and it caused all kinds of delays. It was a co-production with German television and we didn’t get a chance to finish it because at some point, obviously, I had to turn in a final cut. I missed all of that, so I went and re-edited the darn thing years later, it was not edited properly, this gave me a chance to redo it [Burnett cut 30 minutes from the original runtime in a digital re-edit].

NOTEBOOK:  I love the schism you present in The Glass Shield, when J.J., having just begun to doubt the integrity of his own dream profession, swaps to the defensive when he’s challenged by his girlfriend and peers.

BURNETT: Well I wanted to make a film about a young idealistic person that has all these good intentions, but winds up being part of a conspiracy just by wanting to do the right thing. He lies for the police department and he suffers for that. It’s like he’s unaware of himself becoming a co-conspirator. I wanted to make the lie something that was very easy to do. In wanting to do the right thing and getting it wrong and telling just one little lie, he creates this problem in his department. The irony is that he gets blamed for it. He should have stood up and said, “This isn’t what happened.” I wanted to show that anyone who joins the department could do the same thing.

NOTEBOOK: As it’s pertinent for obvious reasons, would you have done it any differently today?

BURNETT: A little differently. I’d make it a little more harsh on JJ. He’d feel more guilty about how he’s been used. He’s very naive, and as a consequence he created this problem where only he was used and victimized. 

NOTEBOOK: I talked to Julie Dash and mentioned a theme in the reviews of white film journalists who were surprised that Daughters of The Dust and The Glass Shield were not shot in a cinéma vérité style.


BURNETT: I think what happened with The Glass Shield was that, because we had Ice Cube in there, the audience had a perception that it was a certain kind of film. It wasn’t that, so they didn’t know what kind of movie it was. They thought it was a documentary at one point, so that was discouraging. But it was based on a number of stories that were happening across the country during that period, so I wanted to capitalize on that. This sort of thing was happening all the time. Police would arrest somebody, harass them, and blame them for all sorts of crazy things. Because the police are so sacrosanct, you could say anything and you’d be guilty. There are so many people locked up in prison for 20 years for something they didn’t do, for something the prosecution knew they didn’t do. In fact something happened just recently where two brothers [Justly Johnson & Kendrick Scott] were arrested, spent 20 years in jail, and the charges [for a murder they did not commit] were just dismissed against them. So it’s an ongoing thing.

NOTEBOOK: You put the film’s bigger stars like Ice Cube, who the studios had the gall to put on the poster and in the bulk of the trailer, and Elliot Gould into roles that are essentially cameos. It was like the studios said you needed big actors, so you cast them into bit roles.

BURNETT: That’s essentially what happened. There was a combination of things that had to be done to get the film made. It could never have been the story itself, because they never really looked at it as a film. When we did To Sleep with Anger they didn’t consider it a film until Danny Glover came aboard. You needed that sellable item to get them to recognize it had potential.

NOTEBOOK: Did Miramax try to make Ice Cube a bigger role in The Glass Shield?

BURNETT: Of course they wanted him to have a bigger role in that film. We said no. They wanted to have more guns and change the language. I had this fight with Harvey Weinstein about that. I said, “No. It’s not an Ice Cube movie. It’s a story about someone who gets sucked into doing the wrong thing.” So we had these fights going back and forth. You either have to settle with what you believe in or continue fighting for what you want. You get worn out, because there’s craziness in this business.

NOTEBOOK: And then the TV movies you did were another kind of struggle. I talked with Julie a little about hers.

BURNETT: Julie really suffered a lot. She had all of these ideas and couldn’t get them financed, even after Daughters of The Dust. Julie is a very smart person, when she does research on a film she does it. But trying to get people to commit to the reality of her stories is like pulling teeth. For The Rosa Parks Story for example, she tried to get them to look at the true story and true nature of Rosa Parks. They hired this young guy to write the story and they got it all wrong. Julie had to come in and save it.

NOTEBOOK: Another thing I talked to Julie about that I wanted to get your thoughts on is the accessibility of cameras and social media, how that has decentralized the protests and Black Lives Matter movement to the masses. In a way, I think it’s made this revolution harder to destabilize than its predecessors.

BURNETT: There’s always been some witness. I think the community always knew what was going on, because they protested a lot. They’d throw people a gun and charge them with having a weapon, say they were part of the shooting. People have been talking about how corrupt the police are for a long time without cameras available. Without the Rodney King camera, if that weren’t recorded, it would have been just another case of the police abusing their authority to deny their story. We knew for a long time that the police were corrupt. Now there are more witnesses.  

NOTEBOOK: Do you feel that the cultural obligation of making up for the lack of representation and misrepresentation in Black films affects your form? You mentioned that you felt you needed to tackle Killer of Sheep from multiple directions to get at the scope of all the issues you wanted to explore.

BURNETT: The thing about making films about people of color is that studios don’t want the depth and dimensions that take place. You try to make it realistic and true to life and then you have people at the door saying, “No. I want it this way or that way.” They have no clue what it was like there. So you’re constantly fighting people who somehow got the ear of these producers, and you’re trying to make these movies that don’t do justice to what’s going on. So it’s constant denial, somehow or another you have to come back to that and squeeze it in, or make it acceptable to them. What happens is we’re the ones who have to answer for it. When you show these films at a festival like the Pan African Film Festival, you’re dealing with a level of intelligence, these audiences know all the history and you can’t try to pull the wool over their eyes. They’ll see right through you. There’s a lot of people in this community who know exactly what happened.

You wonder how many talented director’s stories could have been written if you had just let them alone. It’s just an ongoing struggle. But this is the field we chose, and we knew going in that it was going to be a nightmare struggle. We got hit right from the very beginning about what we could and couldn’t say.

NOTEBOOK: Are things going to change for the better?

BURNETT: I think studios are leaning into telling stories that are relevant. We’ve been trying to do this film on Robert Smalls with Amazon and it’s like pulling teeth. All of the things that should be in the picture can’t be, because they don’t want to put money into it. So you have an incomplete notion to begin with. They’ll do a ten-hour series on baseball, but they won’t do anything on Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, and people like that. So where are their values? It’s part of keeping us down continuously. Maybe this need for Black Lives Matter will change things. It took these people all this time to realize that there is this world out there that needs to be told. If this country is ever going to be healthy, people in power have to take a look at their part in this whole thing. You can’t come out and say, “Well, I didn’t know.” That’s a bunch of bull, now. A lot of people still don’t know they killed just about all of the Native Americans here in a very savage way.

NOTEBOOK: Their versions of history.

BURNETT: It doesn’t ring true. They can’t recall it with empathy because they were never given the true nature of what the country was doing. I remember I was at UCLA watching The Searchers. They always say that’s a great film and everything, but I happened to be sitting next to a Native American girl when we watched it. We were sitting there and she jumped up and stormed out of the theater. I followed her. But it took her to inform me about the nature of that film. In film school they tell you it’s a great film but they don’t go beyond that. Same with TheBirth of A Nation. Then it hits you and you go, “Oh, I’ve been duped.” Then you find out who John Wayne really was, his racism. And he was idolized by a lot of people. So I think we need to reeducate people.

NOTEBOOK: You came into film school as a cameraperson, what were some of your early thoughts about cinematography?

BURNETT: I was against anything that looked like Hollywood. On Killer of Sheep and My Brother’s Wedding I wanted it to look like I just set the camera up and only shot what I could, almost documentary style. An un-manipulative look to it. That was a conscious attempt to give you that look of “reality.”


NOTEBOOK: There’s a lot of debate happening about who should be able to tell what story. I’m half white, half Filipino and my father was adopted by a Black family that I was raised amongst. I have only seen a white experience, seen a Filipino experience, and seen a Black experience, but I have had none of them. I’m trying to reconcile what stories I can and cannot tell. You’ve always made films very close to what you’ve experienced, is it our duty to do so? Should we not make films about something we can only see?

BURNETT: Wow. That’s interesting… I think it has to come from the heart. When I was teaching writing at CalArts there was this white kid from Hawaii. We asked the class to write a story for a film they wanted to do. They all wrote the same story, basically. They were all something you would get from a commercial film, clichéd. So I asked the kid, “You’re from Hawaii, why don’t you write stories about your experience? Being a white guy in Hawaii.” There’s so much that we don’t know about that. Every time I talk to someone about Hawaii, they talk about the racism they experience being a white Hawaiian. But he felt he had to come up with some new notion about where he was and where his stresses were. He completely overlooked his experience. Now, that’s the story. It’s not the thing you see on the television shows that you see over and over and over again. Talk about the things that you know, it’s more poignant, and develop that. How many kids in America don’t know it can be boring in Hawaii? Why wouldn’t you want to show the irony of paradise? That’s the novelty, that’s what’s new. Tell us why you don’t find it exciting to live in Hawaii and show us a whole different point of view of racism. Tell us your story and then you’ll have something to say. But they’re made to look at what’s conventional, these stories we see every day.

NOTEBOOK: Is that something you had to come to yourself, or did you have a sense that it was what you were meant to do from the beginning?

BURNETT: We were always denied a voice for what we thought was real. So we sort of gravitated towards that with the whole L.A. Rebellion thing. We got into film because we wanted to show reality, the truth. And so we made these films that reflect who we are and the people we knew. It was almost from the beginning that we had these notions of why we wanted to be a filmmaker, and had a commitment to it. ‘Cause at the time in the 60s, the whole civil rights movement, what we were supposed to say and do was very clear and written for us. It was very easy for us to follow because it was there. We had some examples like Oscar Mischeaux and people like that and you had Third World cinema which gave us a structure and focus. So we came about at the right time, I think, and we had a group of people, Julie, Haile [Gerima], Billy [Woodberry], all of those folks that are very articulate and read everything, that were telling us this is what we were supposed to be doing. 

NOTEBOOK: Is there anything you’ve wanted to vent or get out there that you haven’t been able to yet?

BURNETT: I’m trying to get back to films that are relevant to me. Every film you make now seems to be a compromise, and you sort of hate yourself for it later on. So I’m trying to get to a place where I can find financing and distribution on a small film in a small way.

Special thanks to Dennis Doros and Amy Heller at Milestone films and producer Carolyn Schroeder for connecting us to Charles Burnett.

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