Upcoming Screenings

American Promise
June 28th, 2017

American Promise
Wednesday, June 28th, 2017 / 7:00pm
Burning Books


2013 / 135 minutes / English / Color
Directed by: Joe Brewster & Michele Stephenson
Print supplied by: POV

Please join us for a special screening of Joe Brewster & Michele Stephenson’s documentary American Promise [2013]. This event is a collaboration with POV, PBS’ award-winning nonfiction film series.

Ticket Information: Free and Open to the Public

• Stop in early for FREE Breadhive baked goods while supplies last! •

• Bring your ticket stubs and join us at The Black Sheep
after the show for 2 for 1 drink specials •


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Description

courtesy of POV:

American Promise is an intimate and provocative account, recorded over 12 years, of the experiences of two middle-class African-American boys who entered a very prestigious–and historically white–private school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The Dalton School had made a commitment to recruit students of color, and five-year-old best friends Idris Brewster and Oluwaseun (Seun) Summers of Brooklyn were two of the gifted children who were admitted. The boys were placed in a demanding environment that provided new opportunities and challenges, if little reflection of their cultural identities.

Idris’ parents, Joe, a Harvard- and Stanford-trained psychiatrist, and Michèle, a Columbia Law School graduate and filmmaker, decided to film the boys’ progress starting in 1999. They and members of the large Summers family soon found themselves struggling not only with kids’ typical growing pains and the kinds of racial issues one might expect, but also with surprising class, gender and generational gaps. American Promise, which traces the boys’ journey from kindergarten through high school graduation, finds the greatest challenge for the families–and perhaps the country–is to close the black male educational achievement gap, which has been called “the civil rights crusade of the 21st century.”

The Dalton School, which provides classes from kindergarten through high school, is a launching pad for success, but also a high-pressure learning environment for all its students. Joe and Michèle, along with Seun’s parents, Tony, a systems engineer for CBS, and Stacey, a nursing care manager for elder health, have worked hard to build their careers despite early disadvantages and are united in their drive to have their sons succeed at school and in life. But there are differences in outlook. Michèle, with Latino-Haitian roots, has some hesitation about sending Idris to private school, where she is afraid he will lose touch with his heritage, while Stacey, who hails from Trinidad, wants Seun to learn something she admits she hasn’t–how to be comfortable around white people. While both fathers have high expectations for their sons, Joe is particularly demanding, while Tony tends to be more forgiving of Seun’s ups and downs.

Idris and Seun are bright, playful boys. Idris is outgoing, while Seun is a bit shy. At school, the boys begin to see the differences between themselves and their classmates. The very young Seun is found trying to brush the color out of his gums because, as he explains, some people say that “black is ugly.” Idris, an enthusiastic basketball player at school and in the neighborhood, finds that the way he is comfortable speaking at home and in school is mocked by other black kids as “talking white.” As puberty looms, Idris feels a distinct disadvantage when he is turned down for dates and suspects that race must be the reason. He asks his parents an innocent, heartbreaking question: “Isn’t it better if I were white?” Along with getting good (and not so good) grades, both boys begin to have emotional and academic problems that confound parents and teachers alike.

Seun’s father, Tony, sheds a humorous light on the situation when he recalls being the only black kid in an all-white class. When the class learned the story of Harriet Tubman, the students turned around and looked at him in unison. At a meeting, the African-American parents of Dalton sixth graders find that their boys are being tracked into special tutoring programs, which may, inadvertently, reinforce some of the root causes of the black male achievement gap.

It soon becomes clear that the situation with Idris, Seun and the others is not as straightforward as simply reflecting the disparities between blacks and whites in America. African-American girls at Dalton and in similar educational settings regularly outperform their male peers, a gender disparity that baffles parents and teachers. Certainly the boys spend a lot of energy on sports, upon which their parents place great emphasis. Idris, nursing dreams of a basketball career–improbable, given his modest height–experiences wins and losses on the school court. Seun is diagnosed with dyslexia and Idris with ADHD, conditions that are widespread among American children and adolescents of all backgrounds.

Both boys struggle with the weight of parental and school expectations, as any kid would, though for Idris and Seun, the weight might be even heavier. American Promise is especially revelatory in showing how the fight to succeed hits home in these two black families. The parents are often frustrated by what they see as their sons’ relative lack of drive, compared to their own experiences.

The boys’ paths then diverge. Upon graduating middle school, Seun leaves Dalton to attend the mostly black Benjamin Banneker Academy, a public high school in Brooklyn, where he thrives, traveling to West Africa with his school’s Africa Tours Club and setting his sights on a career in graphic design (to his parents’ consternation). Idris stays at Dalton through high school, but is disappointed when he doesn’t get into Stanford, his dad’s alma mater. Now dating a girl he adores, he is accepted into Occidental College in California and exuberantly comes to see that what seemed a setback is just another challenge to overcome. Even Joe, the Stanford and Harvard graduate who admits that he has at times been too hard on Idris, accepts that there are roads to success that don’t run straight through the Ivy League. Seun gets into the State University of New York, Fredonia, where he will study graphic arts, and his parents, too, realize there are many paths to success and happiness.

The ins and outs of familial relationships, as parents push for success and boys struggle to find their own identities, plus the challenges and tragedies that life brings, such as Stacey’s colon cancer and the accidental death of Seun’s beloved younger brother, form much of the drama of American Promise. At stake, beyond the challenges of being white or black in America, is the meaning of success in our country. “All American families want to give their children the opportunity to succeed. But the truth is, opportunity is just the first step, particularly for families raising black boys,” says co-director and co-producer Michèle Stephenson. “We hope American Promise shines a light on these issues.”

“Our goal is to empower boys, their parents and educators to pursue educational opportunities, especially to help close the black male achievement gap,” adds her husband and filmmaking partner, Joe Brewster.

Director Interview

courtesy of POV:

POV: For those who haven’t seen the film, can you give us a description of the story and how you got started?

Michèle Stephenson: American Promise is a coming of age story about two young African American boys who’s lives we chronicle from kindergarten through high school graduation. It’s a coming of age story where we see them grow and go through different struggles having to do with education, family, and parenting. The interesting twist about this film is that the filmmakers are also the parents and that’s us, so there’s a particular lens on the experience that we chronicle. It sheds light on some of the particularities and issues that African American boys face specifically around education.

POV: Give us an overview of who the main characters of the film are.

Joe Brewster: When we began the process of making American Promise we decided to invite as many families as possible in our son’s kindergarten class at The Dalton School, a rigorous independent school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. We had five families agree to participate. Over the next few years three dropped out so we were left with our family and our son’s friend in nursery school’s family, the Summers.

Stephenson: I think what was part of the impetus for the film had to do with some of the reasons why we actually entered into this school. We were public school educated parents, but we had been to some of the top Ivy League institutions in our graduate and undergraduate studies and realized, being first generation graduates of a university, what kind of opportunity an education from a rigorous private school could provide because they were our colleagues. When we searched for a place in New York City and came upon the Dalton School, we realized it was an opportunity we couldn’t say no to for our son because of what we thought would be the best education possible. What happened at that time was, upon entering that environment, the school was invested in diversifying its student body and we were part of that experiment. For us, the natural response as filmmakers and documentarians coming into that process was to turn on the camera.

POV: So tell us about the Dalton School as it is a very particular place. Can you describe the environment the kids are in and how it differs from regular public schools?

Stephenson: The Dalton School and others like it that are part of this college preparatory, private school system around the country, but mostly concentrated in urban areas, are really where the elite are educated. It’s about power and being prepared to be a critical thinker in order to have access to that power. They are where our leaders are educated. We came to that, informed in that specific way and looking to guarantee some of the upward mobility that we had started for our family. Dalton is part of that. Some institutions shy away from it but I think that school in particular decided it was their responsibility, as an institution that shapes leaders, to create a school environment reflective of the global society that those students would be entering.

POV: Was it always your intention to chronicle the subjects entire education or was that something that evolved as you went along?

Brewster: Many things evolved over the 14 years of making American Promise but our initial intention was to shoot from kindergarten to graduation.

Stephenson: What it would end up as we weren’t sure but we knew that we had faith in the longitudinal approach and what that could provide as story and drama.

POV: In terms of working with an institution like Dalton, how did you get access to the school and make them comfortable in revealing some of the challenges they face?

Brewster: I think if we had gone into the school and explained the project as it ultimately became, we would have had great difficulty getting this project started. What happened is we came in; we caught them off-guard and we were parents. They were excited about this diversity initiative; we were excited; we had a little bitty camera and began the process all a little naive. The stakes were elevated over the next two or three years and then the serious questions began.

Stephenson: We had a relationship with the head of the middle school who really asking questions about the retention rate of African American boys in middle school for these institutions and was very open about how to resolve this. That particular person was really an advocate for us in continuing the story in spite of the dangers and also understanding that we were invested in telling a complicated story and not a “gotcha,” journalistic approach.

POV: You both refer to issues that African American families, particularly African American young boys face in these situations. What are some of those issues and how do you see them manifest themselves in the film?

Brewster: We point often to something called implicit bias. And that is an unconscious racism. These are feelings, projections, perceptions that you have about these boys that are based on 300 years of perceptions, many of them inaccurate. When we are faced with those perceptions there’s a great deal of anxiety that fills the room. For example, that science may be difficult for them or the academic challenge of an independent school may be over our head. And so there’s a sense of anxiety and shame and it makes it hard to perform. We realized over time that we had to face that directly.

Stephenson: Once these boys hit middle school, there are issues around perception that they’re no longer little boys and sometimes seen as a threat. The suspension happens more frequently. Teachers will you know call us for every small incident that happens, which creates greater anxiety from our perspective as well in terms of how they are being perceived and then trying to figure out if it or real or not; is it based on perception or not? Whole issues that come up in interactions with the institution, the teachers and, in some cases, with other families and other students. So there’s that particular interaction within the school. In light of the fact that you know you picked this school to kind of save your child from perceptions that are outside, you want it to be a safe space, but then you realize that the same perceptions are perpetuated inside. You realize that there’s work that has to be done because in many cases these teachers have not really had much interaction with African American boys.

Brewster: So our son struggled in a sense in acclimating culturally to that Dalton environment but to our chagrin he also struggled in the Brooklyn environment. Here is a boy who has to acclimate in two distinct cultural environments. For us, it’s like learning two or three languages. What we like to say is that, over time, he’s able to master these two cultural environments and that we are hoping that makes him a better man and better able to negotiate his future here.

POV: You have 800 hours of footage. How do you take that volume of material and then shape it into a narrative?

Brewster: It was a little overwhelming so we brought in three great verité editors. We made a decision that we would cut every single piece of footage into verité scenes. We basically gave our editors a couple of instructions, that we wanted this to be a film which we as parents wanted our sons to be perceived for who they really were. We also suggested that they shouldn’t protect us in doing that. I don’t know about the first, but the latter they kept to.

POV: How did it feel for you to make the decision to integrate yourselves into the story more? Also, stepping back now, to see yourselves become characters, essentially.

Brewster: Well it’s particularly painful for me as I wear multiple hats, but my first hat is father. My first job is to make sure my son grows up, that he’s emotionally healthy and that he has some level of academic skills. I think I accomplished that but I’m unable to show you that completely in the film. It’s painful as filmmakers when a critic who has no idea of what went on is chastising you for your child-rearing capabilities. About six or seven years into the project, when I became aware of the numbers affecting African American boys and families, we spoke to about a 150 families around the country in making the film and writing the book. At that point I thought the mission was important. We have shown this film to a number of families and, in tears, they tell us how important this is for validating their experience. Was it worth the pain, the shame and the criticism? I think, at this point, it is a resounding yes. Ask us next week (laughs).

POV: You talk about the numbers around specific issues facing African American young boys. Give us some examples of the things you discovered along the way.

Brewster: That they are are the most criticized and punished subgroup in American society and that does not begin at 16, it begins at 4. We met parents who did not understand, given the resources their child had, why they struggled as much as they did. Even when you look at, and this is what is most shocking, upper middle class parents that gap seems to increase as they go up in income.

Stephenson: Essentially, how well students do is how well we do as a nation. The two are interlinked and intertwined. If we really want to compete at a level that makes sense to maintain, not only our status but our community and our values in this country, we have to take care of all of our children.

Brewster: We are certainly excited about the possibility of change. We know how to educate these boys. We know how to reduce the gap. We have to expect more and hug more. That is our message.

POV: Does the gap appear equally in the public school system vs. the independent school system or do you see differences in how those two systems function?

Brewster: It is everywhere. What we like to say is that many people want to look at this film and ask what the independent schools are doing but when they leave the the independent schools they are going to have to face similar perceptions; a lack of expectations in the criminal justice system, the healthcare system, the banking system. Becoming aware of the issues in this one environment is just a tool to look at American society as a whole.

Stephenson: I think what this film helps shed light on is, when you take away the issue of resources there are things that still perpetuate the gap; there are things that still perpetuate the fact that performances are not the same. The thing that still exists is the unconscious racism. It is the implicit bias that these students face and have to deal with. This permeates whatever the socio-economic class that the communities comes from.

POV: In terms of talking to white families or the side that carries that implicit bias with it, are you having those dialogues too?

Brewster: Let me go back and explain that implicit bias impacts all Americans. The stereotypes that I may be less likely to accept because I am African American I am still impacted by them, although may be in other ways. For example, not asking my son to study as much because I may think it is difficult. It is important that everyone get involved in this discussion because it is not possible to make the big changes without everyone owning some part of the problem.

Stephenson: In telling the story the way it is told the film is an attempt at piercing through stereotypes and assumptions that maybe a majority of audiences have about what a black middle class family is or what these boys are like. It plays that initial role in challenging assumptions and biases that exist. I like to think that is what filmmaking is about. That is why we do what we do. I think Ralph Ellison says “every story is a minority story”. Every particular story is particular, whether it is African American or relating to someone who lives by the Louisiana Bayou, it is about how we as filmmakers use that particularity to tell a story that has a resonance. That is our task and i think that is the first step in attacking these implicit biases. That is why storytelling is so powerful. By seeing these boys come of age, the impact of that longitudinal growth beats any kind of racial assumptions anyone could have. You no longer see them as black but as human beings and boys who are fully grown and complex in their own way. We like to think that when people leave the theater will think twice when they walk down the street and see boys who look like Idris and Seun.

Brewster: Some people will see race; some people will se class but everyone will see boys growing up over time who are African American, trustworthy, efficient and who are like you. That is the real accomplishment.

Directors Bio

courtesy of POV:

A graduate of McGill University and Columbia Law School, Michèle Stephenson (Producer/Director) uses her background in critical studies, race and human rights to inform her documentary work. Her Panamanian and Haitian heritage has also fueled her passion to tackle stories on communities of color and human rights. An early pioneer in the Web 2.0 revolution, Stephenson used video and the Internet to structure human rights campaigns and train people from around the globe in video Internet advocacy. Her work has appeared on PBS, Showtime, MTV and other outlets. Stephenson’s honors include the Silverdocs Diversity Award and the Henry Hampton Award for Excellence in Film and Digital Media.

Joe Brewster (Producer/Director) and his partner, Michèle Stephenson, have produced and directed award-winning feature documentaries and narrative films. Brewster is a Harvard- and Stanford-educated psychiatrist who specializes in organizational analysis, the use of psychoanalytical principals to understand and improve organizations. He moved to New York City in 1985 to pursue media studies in the service of social change. In 1992, Brewster sold his first screenplay to the Jackson/McHenry group under the Warner Bros. imprint. In 1996, he wrote and directed The Keeper, which was an official selection in the dramatic narrative competition section of the Sundance Film Festival and garnered numerous national and international awards, including an Independent Spirit Award nomination.

photo by Orrie King

Links

Here is a curated selection of links shared on our Facebook page for additional insight/information:

Feel free to check out POV’s Community Engagement & Education Discussion Guide here – link

5/30/17 – “A moving document of what it means to be a minority in an exclusive, high-performing school.” Duane Byrge, The Hollywood Reporterlink

Killer of Sheep
July 18th, 2017

Killer of Sheep
Tuesday, July 18th, 2017 / 7:30pm
Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center


1978 / 80 minutes / English / Black & White
Directed by: Charles Burnett
Print supplied by: Milestone Films

Please join Cultivate Cinema Circle and Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center as we celebrate the work of Charles Burnett. First up is a one-night screening of the 40th anniversary restoration of Killer of Sheep [1978].

Ticket Information: $8 general, $6 students & seniors, $5 members


Event Sponsors:


341 Delaware Ave, Buffalo, NY 14202


Trailer

Synopsis

courtesy of the film’s website:

Writer/Director Charles Burnett submitted his first feature, Killer of Sheep, as his thesis for his MFA in film at UCLA. The film was shot on location near his family’s home in Watts in a series of weekends on a shoestring budget of less than $10,000, most of which was grant money.

With a mostly amateur cast (consisting of Burnett’s friends and acquaintances), much handheld camera work, episodic narrative and gritty documentary-style cinematography, Killer of Sheep has been compared by film critics and scholars to Italian neorealist films like Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief and Roberto Rossellini’s Paisan. However, Burnett cites Basil Wright’s Song of Ceylon and Night Mail and Jean Renoir’s The Southerner as his main influences.

In 1981, Killer of Sheep received the Critic’s Award at the Berlin International Film Festival. In 1990, the Library of Congress declared it a national treasure and placed it among the first 50 films entered in the National Film Registry for its historical significance. In 2002, the National Society of Film Critics selected the film as one of the 100 Essential Films of all time.

2017 marks the 40th anniversary of this landmark film and Milestone is celebrating with a worldwide tour of this classic film along with Billy Woodberry’s Bless Their Little Hearts with script and cinematography by Charles Burnett!

Context

Clyde Taylor of New York University coined the phrase, “The L.A. Rebellion” as a term to refer to the group of young black politically-minded artists trading ideas and labor at the UCLA Film School in the 1970‘s. Though Charles Burnett has insisted in several interviews that he and his fellow filmmakers did not in fact consider themselves part of a “rebellion” or “movement” as such, and that it was merely a radical time in American history, he describes the atmosphere at UCLA as one of camaraderie in radical thought. He called UCLA an “anti-Hollywood” environment with a “kind of anarchistic flavor to it” in which one “had to come up with something relevant or extremely well done, original.”

Other directors at UCLA at this time were Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust, 1991), Haile Gerima (Sankofa, 1993), Billy Woodbury (Bless Their Little Hearts, 1984), and Larry Clark (Passing Through, 1977). Burnett himself was the cinematographer for Gerima‘s Bush Mama (1979), worked crew and camera and edited Dash‘s Illusions (1982) and wrote the script and shot Woodbury‘s Bless Their Little Hearts. Another notable figure is UCLA professor Elyseo Taylor, who started the school’s Ethno-Communications department, a program focused on the study and production of films by people of color.

Many of the films that were being made at the time by this peer group have been compared by film critics and scholars to Italian neorealist films of the 1940‘s, the Third World cinema of the ’60s and ‘70s, and the Iranian New Wave of the 90’s. A major thematic thread that runs through many of the films is a critical response to White Hollywood and Blaxploitation. “We needed the spectrum,” says Burnett, “the full range of the black experience.”

Restoration

UCLA has long been considered a leader in the preservation of classic Hollywood cinema, but increasingly in recent years they’ve also been preserving the very best of American independent cinema. At technical level Killer of Sheep demanded immediate attention, as it was already deteriorating when we received the material in 2000. The original 16mm A/B rolls as well as the magnetic soundtrack master suffered from vinegar syndrome, putting the film on a ticking clock.

Killer of Sheep had previously existed only in rough 16mm copies, and the 35mm blow-up restoration better renders the beautiful quality of Charles’ lovely in-the-street cinematography. One of the genuine privileges of doing this work at UCLA is that we’re able to apply the best technical resources in LA to a small, low-budget production that would never otherwise benefit from such treatment. But despite the access to high-end resources, we made great efforts to preserve exactly the rough quality of the original, so as not to alter the work. Especially careful attention was given to image contrast and tonality, to carefully bring out the best aspects of the original negative. We’re indebted to Film Technology Company for their excellent lab work. We also, with the help of John Polito of Audio Mechanics, conducted close and judicious work on the “verite-like” soundtrack, which was often recorded by the many kids who appear in the film.

— Ross Lipman, preservationist at UCLA Film & Television Archive, has been responsible for the restoration of the films of John Cassavetes, John Sayles, and Kenneth Anger. He is the director of Milestone’s release, Notfilm.

Milestone’s 2017 release is based on the digital restoration by Modern Videofilm.

Director Bio

“The impetus was the whole Civil Rights Movement and we felt we had a responsibility to reflect reality, tell the truth about the black community. To help, however we can, to march the social movement forward.”

courtesy of film’s website:

Born in Vicksburg, Mississippi on April 13, 1944, Charles Burnett moved with his family to Los Angeles at an early age. He describes Watts, the community he grew up in, as having a strong mythical connection with the South thanks to the many Southern transplants who settled there — an atmosphere that has informed much of Burnett’s work. He attended John C. Fremont High School, where he ran track. As a member of the electronics club, Burnett befriended fellow electronics enthusiast and secretly aspiring actor Charles Bracy (The Million Dollar Rip-off, 1976), who would later work on and act in a number of Burnett’s films, including Killer of Sheep. Burnett and Bracy graduated in the same class and both went on to study as electricians at Los Angeles City College. Bracy left school early to take a full-time job and Burnett soon lost interest with the idea of being a professional electrician. “They were very strange people,” Burnett says of his electrician-to-be peers, “They told awful jokes. They were dull people. Didn’t want that. I was always interested in photography and looked into being a cinematographer and started taking creative writing at UCLA.”

Burnett decided to pursue a Master of Fine Arts in filmmaking at UCLA, where he was greatly influenced by his professors Basil Wright, the English documentary filmmaker famous for Night Mail and Song of Ceylon, and Elyseo Taylor, creator of the Ethno-Communications program and professor of Third World cinema. Burnett cites Jean Renoir, Satyajit Ray, Federico Fellini and Sidney Lumet as other important cinematic influences.

Burnett worked and studied at UCLA alongside Julie Dash, Haile Gerima, Billy Woodbury, Larry Clark, and Jamaa Fanaka (then known as Walter Gordon). He describes the UCLA film school as an “anti-Hollywood” environment with a “kind of anarchistic flavor to it.” The UCLA filmmakers shared a disdain for the Blaxploitation vogue of the day and a propensity toward filmmaking that was “relevant or extremely well done, original.” Clyde Taylor of New York University would later label this group of radical black film contemporaries the “L.A. Rebellion.” Although there was no conscious impetus among these filmmakers to declare themselves part of a “rebellion,” there was much camaraderie and exchange of ideas and labor between them. Burnett was the cinematographer for Gerima’s Bush Mama (1979), worked crew and camera and edited Dash’s Illusions (1982) and was the screenwriter and cinematographer for Woodbury’s Bless Their Little Hearts (1984).

Burnett and his contemporaries took their time at UCLA, staying in the program as long as they could in order to take advantage of the free film equipment and making film after film. Burnett made a number of seminal films at this time, the most notably his thesis film and first feature, Killer of Sheep. The precursor to Killer of Sheep, Several Friends (1969), was originally planned as a feature but ended up a short. Several Friends was a series of loose, documentary-style vignettes sketching the lives of a handful of characters, mostly played by amateurs (Burnett’s friends) living in Watts. Much of the film’s theme and aesthetic (and many of its actors) ended up in Killer of Sheep.

Several Friends is included in Milestone’s DVD release of Killer of Sheep, along with another student short The Horse (1973), the critically acclaimed short When It Rains (1995), his portrait of a family in post-Katrina New Orleans, Quiet as Kept, and both original release and the director’s cut of Burnett’s second feature, a long-neglected landmark of independent cinema, My Brother’s Wedding (1984).

My Brother’s Wedding began production in 1983. Burnett wrote, directed and produced this low budget independent film that examines the family connections and personal obligations facing Pierce, a young man trying to keep his best friend from going back to jail while dealing with his older brother’s approaching marriage into a bourgeois black family. My Brother’s Wedding uses both comedy and tragedy to explore the way that class figures into the American black experience. Burnett submitted a rough cut of the film to its producers, who against his wishes, accepted it as the final cut. The unfinished film was shown at the New Directors/New Films festival to mixed reviews, discouraging distributors and tragically relegating the film to relative obscurity.

In 1990, Burnett wrote and directed the haunting, malicious, and darkly funny family drama, To Sleep With Anger. Danny Glover, parlaying his recent stardom in Lethal Weapon to get funding, co-produced and starred in this critically lauded film as Harry, a charming, mischievous, and possibly supernatural Southern family friend. As he insinuates himself into the home of a prosperous black family, Harry, like another snaky charmer, threatens to spoil their domestic paradise. Burnett received acclaim in America and abroad for the film. In 1991, To Sleep With Anger won Independent Spirit Awards for Best Director and Best Screenplay for Burnett and Best Actor for Glover. The Library of Congress later selected this film (in addition to Killer of Sheep) for its prestigious National Film Registry. The National Society of Film Critics honored Burnett for best screenplay for To Sleep With Anger, making him the first black filmmaker to win in this category in the group’s 25-year history. While the Los Angeles Times reported that Burnett’s movie reminded viewers of Anton Chekov, Time magazine wrote: “If Spike Lee’s films are the equivalent of rap music — urgent, explosive, profane, then Burnett’s movie is good, old urban blues.” The film also received a Special Jury Recognition Award at the 1990 Sundance Film Festival and a Special Award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. Both Burnett and Glover were nominated for New York Film Critics Circle Awards.

Burnett’s next film, The Glass Shield, (1994, starring Lori Petty, Michael Boatman and Ice Cube) was a police drama based on a true story of corruption and racism within the Los Angeles police force. While the film went over well with critics, it was not a commercial success. Terrence Rafferty explains: “[The Glass Shield is] a thoughtful, lucid moral drama with a deeply conflicted hero and no gunplay whatsoever. Miramax’s fabled marketing department tried to sell it as a hood movie, dumping it in a few urban theaters with the support of miniscule ads whose most prominent feature was the glowering face of Ice Cube (who has a small role in the picture).”

Burnett followed this feature with the short, When It Rains (1995), which was chosen as one of the ten best films of 1990s by the Chicago Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum. Rosenbaum went on to choose Killer of Sheep and To Sleep with Anger as two of the Top 100 American Films as Alternate to the American Film Institute Top 100.

Working with movie stars James Earl Jones and Lynn Redgrave, Burnett directed the surreal interracial romantic comedy The Annihilation of Fish (1999), which won awards at the Newport Beach, Sarasota, and Worldfest Houston Film Festivals.

Burnett traveled to Africa to make Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation (2007), a powerful, epic biography of Sam Nujoma, the leader of the South West Africa People’s Movement and the nation’s first president. Based on Nujoma’s memoirs, the film stars Carl Lumbly and Danny Glover.

Throughout his career, Burnett has also embraced the documentary form — many of his earliest film efforts walk the line between fiction and nonfiction cinema. He directed the 1991 documentary about U.S. immigration, America Becoming; Dr. Endesha Ida Mae Holland (1998), a portrait of a civil rights activist, playwright, and teacher; and Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (2003) about the leader of an important slave rebellion.

Burnett made his television debut directing his acclaimed 1996 Disney Channel film, Nightjohn. Based on the Gary Paulsen’s novel, the film tells the story of a slave’s risky attempt to teach an orphaned slave girl to read and write. New Yorker film critic Terrence Rafferty called Nightjohn the “best American movie of 1996.” The TV film received a 1997 Special Citation Award from the National Society of Film Critics “for a film whose exceptional quality and origin challenge strictures of the movie marketplace.”

Burnett’s television work also includes the 1998 ABC two-part mini-series Oprah Winfrey Presents: The Wedding, starring Halle Barry and Lynn Whitfield; Selma, Lord, Selma (1999), about the infamous 1965 “Bloody Sunday” civil rights march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge; a film about Negro League Baseball, Finding Buck McHenry (2000); Relative Stranger (2009), a drama about a painful family reunion; and Warming By the Devil’s Fire (2003), an episode in Martin Scorsese’s six-part documentary The Blues for PBS. Burnett also worked on the PBS miniseries American Family: The Journey of Dreams, which debuted in 2002.

In 1997, the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival honored Burnett with a retrospective, Witnessing For Everyday Heroes, presented at New York’s Walter Reade Theater of Lincoln Center. Burnett has been awarded grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the J. P. Getty Foundation, as well as a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship (a.k.a. “the genius grant”).

Burnett is also the winner of the American Film Institute’s Maya Deren Award, and one of the very few people ever to be honored with Howard University’s Paul Robeson Award for achievement in cinema. The Chicago Tribune has called him “one of America’s very best filmmakers” and the New York Times named him “the nation’s least-known great filmmaker and most gifted black director.” Burnett has even had a day named after him — in 1997, the mayor of Seattle declared February 20 to be Charles Burnett Day.

Burnett has been cited as a major influence by many current artists, musicians, writers, and filmmakers, including Barry Jenkins, Sherman Alexie, Lance Hammer, Matthew David Wilder, Bill Jennings. David Gordon Green, Nelson Kim, Kahlil Joseph, Ava DuVernay, Lynne Ramsay, Monona Wali, Mos Def, Pamela J. Peters, and hip hop duo Shabazz Palaces.

Burnett’s next feature film project, Tanner’s Song, pays homage from Bobby Kimball — original lead signer of the Grammy Award-winning band, Toto — to the wise man who mentored him. Danny Glover has expressed interest in playing the role of Tanner.

Charles Burnett lives Los Angeles. He is the father of two sons, Jonathan and Steven, and the grandfather of Malia and Leila Burnett.

“I don’t think I’m capable of answering problems that have been here for many years. But I think the best I can do is present them in a way where one wants to solve these problems.”

Links

Here is a curated selection of links shared on our Facebook page for additional insight/information:

Bless Their Little Hearts
July 20th, 2017

Bless Their Little Hearts
Thursday, July 20th, 2017 / 7:30pm
Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center


1984 / 80 minutes / English / Black & White
Directed by: Billy Woodberry
Print supplied by: Milestone Films

Please join Cultivate Cinema Circle and Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center as we celebrate the work of Charles Burnett. Our second selection is a one-night screening of Bless Their Little Hearts [1984], written by Burnett and directed by Billy Woodberry. The film was named to the National Registry of the Library of Congress in 2013.

Ticket Information: $8 general, $6 students & seniors, $5 members


Event Sponsors:


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Synopsis

courtesy of the film’s website:

Bless Their Little Hearts, a landmark of American independent cinema will open Wednesday, May 17 for exclusive theatrical engagements at IFC Center. Named to the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress, the films represent a high-water mark from the “L.A. Rebellion,” a group of African-American filmmakers who came out of UCLA in the 1960s-1980s that also included Haile Gerima (Sankofa) and Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust). Director Billy Woodberry will appear in person for post-screening Q&As on the opening night of the engagement.

Billy Woodberry’s Bless Their Little Hearts (1983), written and shot by Burnett and starring Killer of Sheep’s Kaycee Moore, chronicles the devastating toll that joblessness takes on a married couple and their children. Added to the National Film Registry in 2013, “Part of the vibrant New Wave of independent African-American filmmakers to emerge in the 1970s and 1980s, Billy Woodberry became a key figure in the movement known as the L.A. Rebellion. Woodberry crafted his UCLA thesis film, “Bless Their Little Hearts,” which was theatrically released in 1984. The film features a script and cinematography by Charles Burnett. This spare, emotionally resonant portrait of family life during times of struggle blends grinding, daily-life sadness with scenes of deft humor. Jim Ridley of the “Village Voice” aptly summed up the film’s understated-but- real virtues: “Its poetry lies in the exaltation of ordinary detail.”

Restoration

Bless Their Little Hearts represents the closure and pinnacle of a neorealist strand within what’s now described as the L.A. Rebellion, which dates to Charles Burnett’s Several Friends (1969). Billy Woodberry’s film chronicles the devastating effects of underemployment on a family in the same Los Angeles community depicted in Killer of Sheep (1977), and it pays witness to the ravages of time in the short years since its predecessor. Nate Hardman and Kaycee Moore deliver gutwrenching performances as the couple whose family is torn apart by events beyond their control. If salvation remains, it’s in the sensitive depiction of everyday life, which persists throughout.

By 1978, when Bless’ production began, Burnett, then 34, was already an elder statesman and mentor to many within the UCLA film community, and it was he who encouraged Woodberry to pursue a feature-length work. In a telling act of trust, Burnett offered the newcomer a startlingly intimate 70-page original scenario and also shot the film. He furthermore connected Woodberry with his cast of friends and relatives, many of whom had appeared in Killer of Sheep, solidifying the two films’ connections.

Yet critically, he then held back further instruction, leaving Woodberry to develop the material, direct and edit. As Woodberry reveals, “He would deliberately restrain himself from giving me the solution to things.” The first-time feature director delivered brilliantly, and the result is an ensemble work that represents the cumulative visions of Woodberry, Burnett and their excellent cast.

Whereas Burnett’s original scenario placed emphasis on the spiritual crisis of Hardman’s Charlie Banks, the then-married Woodberry, alongside Moore and Hardman, further developed the domestic relationships within the film and articulated the depiction of a family struggling to stay alive in a world of rapidly vanishing prospects.

In retrospect, the film’s ending can be seen as a spiritual goodbye not just for Banks, but for Burnett, who would move away from his neorealist work with his next film, the classic To Sleep With Anger (1990); for Woodberry, who moved into documentary; and for Hardman, who left cinema shortly after. The film remains an unforgettable landmark in American cinema.


Restoration by UCLA Film & Television Archive.
Restored by Ross Lipman in consultation with Billy Woodberry
35mm Picture Restoration by The Stanford Theater Film Laboratory and Fotokem
Restored from the original 16mm b/w negative A/B rolls and the original 16mm optical soundtrack
With funding by The National Film Preservation Foundation and The Packard Humanities Institute
Sound Restoration by Audio Mechanics
Sound Transfers by NT Picture and Sound
Special Thanks: Charles Burnett, Allyson Field, Sean Hewitt, Jan-Christopher Horak, Shawn Jones, John Polito, Jacqueline Stewart, Dave Tucker, Danielle Faye, Todd Wiener
Digital restoration (cleanup, stabilization, de-flicker) by Re-Kino, Warsaw, Poland. DCP by DI Factory, Warsaw.
Funding by Milestone Film & Video

Director Bio

courtesy of film’s website:

Born in Dallas in 1948, Billy Woodberry is one of the founders of the L.A. Rebellion film movement.

I was born in a big county hospital — Parkland… They were thinking of maybe knocking it down, but they decided to preserve it. So I’m glad. And when I was born, we lived in North Dallas on Roseland and that’s important to me because shortly after, I think, we moved to a big housing project on the far, south side of town, the end of the street corner. So I actually grew up there, but I kind of imagined what it would have been like if I would have stayed in North Dallas with my original people, you know? (Laughs) North Dallas is an old part of town. The first high school was in that part of town, my mother’s from that — when she came to Dallas, she lived in that part of town. It was a smaller kind of place in a sort of important part of the city, and the black part of the city… My mother was maybe 16, 17, so she couldn’t manage to work and have me … so she took me to her grandparents — her father’s parents — in East Texas … when I was maybe nine months old or something like that… I spent the first six years there on a farm in the country. I joined them later when it was time to go to school… In the first grade, I went to the school in the country with all of the kids I knew and my cousins and took the bus. I was fine with it, but my mother was not hearing that, so I had to come [back] to the city. Every summer I went [back to the country]. I knew that world and because they were older and from a different generation, I knew those people, and I knew my great aunt, who was a bit older than them. And I remember when they got social security … I remember when they got electricity, when we got a television and the mystery about that, like what happens if it storms and the TV is on [and] this kind of stuff. So I remember a lot of things that others, even people my age, don’t know.

Then I went to Dallas in the second grade and I lived in my big housing project and that was a notorious part of town, the tough part of town. That project was new and you can’t think of it like now; now I joke, I tell my cousins and my friends, all those people you’re trying to run away from in the projects, they’ve got their own TV show (laughs). But it’s a different thing, because when we lived in there it was young families, right off, making their way, and they weren’t always like the poorest people, and they were ambitious people, and that was a transition for them until they could manage… So I lived there for nine years and then we moved — I think nine — well, I was going into the eighth grade and we moved to upper South Dallas because my uncle had a nice place and he died, and so my aunt inherited it. We spent a year there and then we moved across the river to a place called Oak Cliff.

In Black Film Review, (Volume 1, No. 4), Woodberry said about his childhood living on that small farm, “I think I absorbed the stories, the sensibilities, the sounds of that generation, born not so long ago after the end of slavery and Reconstruction.”

At Lincoln High School in Oak Cliff, Woodberry played football and saw movies down the street at the Lincoln as well as the Forest Avenue Theater — the latter now owned by Erykah Badu. He had offers from black colleges (Morgan State in Baltimore being one of them), but he decided to go west to California and went first to Santa Barbara City College.

Santa Barbara used to be a kind of weigh station for the Black Panthers because it was a very pleasant interlude before you entered Los Angeles County, where you encountered a very different police response than you did even in the Bay Area, so they liked that respite…They could kind of walk around and relax and be admired by young students, so I got to see that… My real heroes were the SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] people, many of whom I didn’t know until later, but I knew it from reading about them because those campaigns to raise support for the work in the South. And the Berkeley people; I didn’t know Berkeley or go to Berkeley until the 70s. I just knew their work and the people that passed through. And I picked that stuff up… I connected with that once I decided that, you know what, I really do want to finish school and see where that goes.

[After graduation] I went home, I got married, I didn’t want to stay there, so I stayed there for a total of two months, and I came to California March 1970. And I landed at my friend and his roommate’s house and I slept in his room on the floor and… She would wait. I would get a place, I would get things going. So I needed to get a job, I needed to see about school, and I probably accomplished all of it by summer with my friends. I got a job in a factory in Vernon. It’s a lithography plant. They printed all the album covers if you remember that phenomenon… My wife came. She was here for some months, then she was gonna have a baby. She was pregnant. She wanted to be back in her place, so in about six months, she moved back to have her baby and I stayed and I did a summer program at Cal State, which I didn’t have to do, but I’m actually incredibly happy… that I did it. Most of the people went to school at night because they worked during the day. And those guys, they had a kind of third-world consciousness because of the politics of the Panthers and the Chicano Moratorium… and they knew that these groups need to know each other and they need to cooperate and respect each other, so they gave you the history and they gave you the analysis and the sociology and all of that, relating to that, and you got exposed to it and it became a part of your thing. There’s no conflict, competition, and that kind of thing. You were interested in the other people and the issues, so very helpful, very useful things about how to study and how to organize your time and you direct yourself and how to ask for help if you need it and how to get support financially and otherwise — to do what you needed to do.

Woodberry continued his studies and Cal State Los Angeles, becoming a serious student as well as looking outside of his course work to grow intellectually. It was the time of the black consciousness movement, the black arts movement and he saw the large increase of black students at the top UC campuses post-1968.

It was exciting and it was easy to be excited about it and to be stimulated by it. So [in] 1972, I decide I want my degree. I found a receptive and hospitable and stimulating department in Pan-African studies, so I did my B.A. in African-American history and studies. In between graduating and the fall, I took a summer course in Latin American studies… there was this political scientist named Donald Bray who was a political scientist… That summer, Bray did a class on Cuba, but it was a class that was partly through film. And we saw all of the Cuban documentary films and the History Of A Battle [Historia de una batalla by Manuel Octavio Gómez]— the film about the literacy campaign and the brigadistas, the young ones who go in the countryside, volunteer with sleeping bags, and they wanted to teach every peasant how to at least how to read and write their name. It was a whole campaign. So you got to see all of [these] kind[s] of films. I found it really exciting and, along with starting to try to understand issues of history and political economy and philosophy and political organization and commitment, what it meant – I was excited by that… That was a part of the way that I was sort of taken with film.

My teachers, Harding and Bray, they knew I had a growing interest in that, and they mentioned to me — I had learned about UCLA Film School, but it was not something that I was committed to or sure I could. I was very tentative, but they knew I was interested, so one time, Paul Offredi, this Brazilian pedagogue, was meeting up at La Paz, the center and retreat for the United Farm Workers. This was 1970 — early 72. And they asked me would I like to go to see him because they knew I was [interested] and they said you can meet a guy, a Brazilian guy, who studies at UCLA — Mario DeSilva. He was in graduate school at UCLA. I said, “Sure.” I went, I didn’t wear warm enough clothes, I didn’t realize how cold it got. We took a van, I met him, I talked with him, I spent time with him, I went up, I saw Paul Offredi in an act with the farm workers and César Chávez, and I came back, and Mario told me, “Sure, make the application, you can do that and I will take you around.” Then, I made the application, they wrote me wonderful letters.

I was teaching myself as a part of learning about — wanting to learn about — film. And the other thing is I had made an 8mm film in my history of jazz and blues class for a guy I really love. He went to school here, did his Ph.D. in anthropology. His name was Lance Williams and he’s a real Los Angeles guy, he went to Mt. Carmel High School, he went to Cal State L.A., he came here, he knew a lot about jazz and music. He had been tutored by Quincy Jones and all those people. He’s a nice, brilliant, Catholic boy, you know what I mean? And really smart and [a] good teacher. I made this film based on a song by John Lee Hooker, “Whiskey and Women.” It was just a free-form kind of little film I made on Super 8, but I made it myself and edited in the camera. So I must’ve been interested, and he still talks about that. I made the first film in his class. [Now lost.]

I came over to visit before I got in, I think, with Mario and my then girlfriend because I had gotten a divorce and I had a new girlfriend… I came for his thesis screening. That’s where I met Charles Burnett. He was playing with a yo-yo (laughs) and being unassuming, not really showing you who he was, but Mario told me that, “that’s the guy you want to know and that’s the guy you [want to] really check out because he doesn’t do all the yapping and the posturing that the others [do], but I’m telling you, his is the real deal. I’ve worked with him, I’ve been in Watts with him. I know. He’s the real guy.” Now it took two years of something before we became friends, three almost. That was how I met him, though.

Going to UCLA was not the only film education Woodberry received. He remembers a bookstore/café named the Long March where he watched The Mother by Vsevolod Pudovkin, Sergei Eisenstein’s Old and New, and G. W. Pabst’s version of the Threepenny Opera. It was also a golden age of repertory cinemas in Los Angeles — Woodberry remembers seeing a retrospective of Jean-Luc Godard movies at the Vanguard. At the Vagabond, (programmed by William Moritz an important historian of animation and experimental films) Woodberry saw Glauber Rocha’s Antonio das Mortes. His first date with the woman that became his second wife, was at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to see Brazilian films. They also would take the bus down to the Fox Venice Theater where one Saturday they saw Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist and Godard’s Tout va Bien.

It’s good to see, for me to remember, that part of my film culture was formed in the context of the cultural and political world of the time and not just in the classroom.

That’s not to dismiss at all the importance of UCLA.

This was a wonderful, wonderful place because it was a world where you were inundated with film, with the talk about it, the smell of it, the young people getting their hands on equipment for the first time… and you had the requirements that you do three film history sections, that you do two seminars, and so you were able to… see all kinds of films that I might avoid… If I have to do the history of silent film, I can’t avoid it. And the fact [is] that I’m interested in it and I will buy books and read books about it. I don’t know [if] that’s everybody’s temperament or experience, but for me, it was… It’s interesting, too, that a number of my friends, including Geoffrey Gilmore, who’s at Tribeca now, but was [for] years at Sundance and did his studies here in film theory, film studies, film history, and others. A number of those people, we’ve remained friends since school because I’m genuinely interested in what they do and what they think about.

I remember the first discussion me and Charles [Burnett] had was: Pudovkin or Eisenstein? (laughs) He says, Pudovkin, because he’s more humanist. As I learned about his things, how he acquired his interest, his taste and over the years we’ve shared those things, and I really admire, and I was enriched by learning what his interests were and what informed what he did.

In Black Film Review, (Volume 1, No. 4, 1984), Woodberry added, “It was a very fertile time for the film school. Haile Gerima was there, Larry Clark was there, Charles Burnett was there. They were ahead of me and beginning to make their films. So it was a very dynamic and fertile environment…They organized screenings in the evenings. There were constant debates and arguments. And they were all very hard working and set the standards…In that environment, I think one could do less, but only with a lot of discomfort; you didn’t have many excuses for not striving to say something more. We all felt the dearth of images, of films that expressed what we thought, what we knew.”

About his own first attempts to make film, in that same magazine, Woodberry noted, “I was exposed to films that had a social dimension…In sort of a backwards way, from these films, I started to search for films that somehow demonstrated a possibility of expressing my concern with social and political issues. At a certain point, I wanted to make films. To try.” His first student film is now lost, but his next short film, The Pocketbook exists and it’s a small masterpiece.

With a small grant from the American Film Institute, Woodberry attempted the very ambitious Bless Their Little Hearts in 1979. But in that year, he had to stop for six months. Over the next three years, he was able to shoot approximately four-fifths of the film. Woodberry received his MFA from UCLA in 1982. It had taken a while to get through school since he had to make money to support himself and to produce Bless Their Little Hearts. In September of 1983, he had the film’s first screening at the Independent Feature Market in New York. The film is now considered a pioneering and essential work of the L.A. Rebellion — influenced by Italian neo-realism and the work of Third Cinema filmmakers. Bless Their Little Hearts was awarded an OCIC and Ecumenical Jury awards at the Berlin International Film Festival and was added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 2013. For some years after graduation, Woodberry taught at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television.

Currently, Woodberry is a permanent faculty member
 of the School of Film/Video and the School of Art at the California Institute of the Arts, where he has taught since 1989. Over the years, Woodberry has also been an established video and multimedia installation artist, his works appearing at the Viennale, DocLisboa, Amiens International Film Festival, Camera Austria Symposium, Harvard Film Archive, Human Rights Watch Film Festival and Museum of Modern Art.

Woodberry’s film portrait of black beat poet Bob Kaufman, And When I Die, I Won’t Stay Dead (2015) was the opening film of MoMA’s Doc Fortnight in 2016. It was a film long in the making:

“I’ve been researching him for about twelve, fourteen years. I knew about him before, since the seventies, from people who introduced me to his books. I always had his books, and I was impressed, but I didn’t know so much at the time. And then in 1986, I went to the City Lights bookstore and saw this magazine, Poetry Flash, and the cover [story] was about his death. At the time, I thought, “Maybe I should make a short movie about him. A kind of tribute.” But when I looked at it, I couldn’t figure out how to do it. I didn’t really grasp the tragic dimensions of his life. I was too naive — I didn’t know enough about life, enough about tragedy, enough about much. So I put it aside. In the early aughts, I took it up again. I spent six or seven years researching it, another four or five years shooting it, and I spent two years editing it.” — Interview by Danny King, Village Voice, February 19, 2016.

The film premiered at the 53rd Viennale, Vienna International Film Festival (2015), and has been featured at festivals nationally and internationally, including the 13th Doclisboa, Documentary International Film Festival – International Competition, Lisbon (2015); 45th International Film Festival Rotterdam – Signatures, (2016); 59th San Francisco International Film Festival (2016); Courtisane Film Festival, Ghent (2016); and The Flaherty Film Seminar, New York (2016).

And When I Die, I Won’t Stay Dead — title lifted from a line in one of Kaufman’s poems — is director Woodberry’s inspired, moving meditation on Kaufman’s work and legacy. A seamless marriage of director and subject, the film is not only scored by but also moves to the rhythms of jazz and is itself a kind of poetry. Fans of Woodberry’s masterful 1984 film Bless Their Little Hearts (selected for preservation in the National Film Registry) won’t be surprised at the taut intelligence and rich artfulness of And When I Die, in which the director upends many bio-doc conventions. He opens the film by dropping the viewer into Kaufman’s narrative at its boiling point – after he has already made waves and a name for himself in San Francisco’s fecund poetry scene of the mid-twentieth century.” -For CraveOnline, Ernest Hardy, 2016

Woodberry’s short documentary, Marseille Après La Guerre (2016), is a portrait of dock workers in post-WWII Marseille, many of whom were of African descent, and pays homage to Senegalese film director, Ousmane Sembéne:

“These photographs [that make up the short] were found in the collection of the National Maritime Union, in their archives at the NYU library. They are views and photographs of the docks of Marseilles after the Second World War. The film is also a kind of tribute to Ousmane Sembène, the Senegalese writer and filmmaker because, in ’47, he made his way back to France after serving in the war. He went back to Marseilles, where he worked and lived as a dockworker and joined the CGT [General Confederation of Labor]. So it’s a tribute to him, and a tribute those dock people, and to Marseilles at the time. It’s also a tribute to a group of young musicians who kind of reclaimed this heritage. They were very responsive to a book by Claude McKay, a Jamaican writer who lived in the United States. He wrote a book in Marseilles called Banjo, about life in the old ports of Marseilles. It’s quite a book. These young musicians — they said if their band was a book, it would be called Banjo. I liked their music, so we used it. So it’s a way of promoting my affection for Sembène and for that world and also for finding that material.” — Interview by Danny King, Village Voice, February 19, 2016.

Marseille Après La Guerre received acclaim after its screenings at the Roy and Edna Disney Theater CalArts’ Downtown Center for Contemporary Arts, Los Angeles (2016), Courtisane Film Festival, Gent (2016), and Instituto Moreira Salles, Rio de Janeiro (2016).

Woodberry’s films have been screened at the Cannes and Berlin Film Festivals, Viennale, Rotterdam, the Museum 
of Modern Art (MoMA), Harvard Film Archive, Camera Austria Symposium, Human Rights Watch Film Festival, Tate Modern, and Centre Pompidou.

He has also appeared in Charles Burnett’s When It Rains (1995) and provided narration for Thom Andersen’s Red Hollywood (1996) and James Benning’s
 Four Corners (1998).

In March 0f 2017, Woodberry was the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellows for “individuals who have already demonstrated exceptional capacity for productive scholarship or exceptional creative ability in the arts.”


Main Interview Courtesy of UCLA Film and Television Archive. Completed on: Thursday, June 24, 2010; July 6, 2010. Interviewee: Billy Woodberry (BW). Interviewers: Jacqueline Stewart, Dr. Allyson Field, and Robyn Charles. Transcribers: Kelly Lake, Michael Kmet.

Writer Bio

“The impetus was the whole Civil Rights Movement and we felt we had a responsibility to reflect reality, tell the truth about the black community. To help, however we can, to march the social movement forward.”

courtesy of film’s website:

Born in Vicksburg, Mississippi on April 13, 1944, Charles Burnett moved with his family to Los Angeles at an early age. He describes Watts, the community he grew up in, as having a strong mythical connection with the South thanks to the many Southern transplants who settled there — an atmosphere that has informed much of Burnett’s work. He attended John C. Fremont High School, where he ran track. As a member of the electronics club, Burnett befriended fellow electronics enthusiast and secretly aspiring actor Charles Bracy (The Million Dollar Rip-off, 1976), who would later work on and act in a number of Burnett’s films, including Killer of Sheep. Burnett and Bracy graduated in the same class and both went on to study as electricians at Los Angeles City College. Bracy left school early to take a full-time job and Burnett soon lost interest with the idea of being a professional electrician. “They were very strange people,” Burnett says of his electrician-to-be peers, “They told awful jokes. They were dull people. Didn’t want that. I was always interested in photography and looked into being a cinematographer and started taking creative writing at UCLA.”

Burnett decided to pursue a Master of Fine Arts in filmmaking at UCLA, where he was greatly influenced by his professors Basil Wright, the English documentary filmmaker famous for Night Mail and Song of Ceylon, and Elyseo Taylor, creator of the Ethno-Communications program and professor of Third World cinema. Burnett cites Jean Renoir, Satyajit Ray, Federico Fellini and Sidney Lumet as other important cinematic influences.

Burnett worked and studied at UCLA alongside Julie Dash, Haile Gerima, Billy Woodbury, Larry Clark, and Jamaa Fanaka (then known as Walter Gordon). He describes the UCLA film school as an “anti-Hollywood” environment with a “kind of anarchistic flavor to it.” The UCLA filmmakers shared a disdain for the Blaxploitation vogue of the day and a propensity toward filmmaking that was “relevant or extremely well done, original.” Clyde Taylor of New York University would later label this group of radical black film contemporaries the “L.A. Rebellion.” Although there was no conscious impetus among these filmmakers to declare themselves part of a “rebellion,” there was much camaraderie and exchange of ideas and labor between them. Burnett was the cinematographer for Gerima’s Bush Mama (1979), worked crew and camera and edited Dash’s Illusions (1982) and was the screenwriter and cinematographer for Woodbury’s Bless Their Little Hearts (1984).

Burnett and his contemporaries took their time at UCLA, staying in the program as long as they could in order to take advantage of the free film equipment and making film after film. Burnett made a number of seminal films at this time, the most notably his thesis film and first feature, Killer of Sheep. The precursor to Killer of Sheep, Several Friends (1969), was originally planned as a feature but ended up a short. Several Friends was a series of loose, documentary-style vignettes sketching the lives of a handful of characters, mostly played by amateurs (Burnett’s friends) living in Watts. Much of the film’s theme and aesthetic (and many of its actors) ended up in Killer of Sheep.

Several Friends is included in Milestone’s DVD release of Killer of Sheep, along with another student short The Horse (1973), the critically acclaimed short When It Rains (1995), his portrait of a family in post-Katrina New Orleans, Quiet as Kept, and both original release and the director’s cut of Burnett’s second feature, a long-neglected landmark of independent cinema, My Brother’s Wedding (1984).

My Brother’s Wedding began production in 1983. Burnett wrote, directed and produced this low budget independent film that examines the family connections and personal obligations facing Pierce, a young man trying to keep his best friend from going back to jail while dealing with his older brother’s approaching marriage into a bourgeois black family. My Brother’s Wedding uses both comedy and tragedy to explore the way that class figures into the American black experience. Burnett submitted a rough cut of the film to its producers, who against his wishes, accepted it as the final cut. The unfinished film was shown at the New Directors/New Films festival to mixed reviews, discouraging distributors and tragically relegating the film to relative obscurity.

In 1990, Burnett wrote and directed the haunting, malicious, and darkly funny family drama, To Sleep With Anger. Danny Glover, parlaying his recent stardom in Lethal Weapon to get funding, co-produced and starred in this critically lauded film as Harry, a charming, mischievous, and possibly supernatural Southern family friend. As he insinuates himself into the home of a prosperous black family, Harry, like another snaky charmer, threatens to spoil their domestic paradise. Burnett received acclaim in America and abroad for the film. In 1991, To Sleep With Anger won Independent Spirit Awards for Best Director and Best Screenplay for Burnett and Best Actor for Glover. The Library of Congress later selected this film (in addition to Killer of Sheep) for its prestigious National Film Registry. The National Society of Film Critics honored Burnett for best screenplay for To Sleep With Anger, making him the first black filmmaker to win in this category in the group’s 25-year history. While the Los Angeles Times reported that Burnett’s movie reminded viewers of Anton Chekov, Time magazine wrote: “If Spike Lee’s films are the equivalent of rap music — urgent, explosive, profane, then Burnett’s movie is good, old urban blues.” The film also received a Special Jury Recognition Award at the 1990 Sundance Film Festival and a Special Award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. Both Burnett and Glover were nominated for New York Film Critics Circle Awards.

Burnett’s next film, The Glass Shield, (1994, starring Lori Petty, Michael Boatman and Ice Cube) was a police drama based on a true story of corruption and racism within the Los Angeles police force. While the film went over well with critics, it was not a commercial success. Terrence Rafferty explains: “[The Glass Shield is] a thoughtful, lucid moral drama with a deeply conflicted hero and no gunplay whatsoever. Miramax’s fabled marketing department tried to sell it as a hood movie, dumping it in a few urban theaters with the support of miniscule ads whose most prominent feature was the glowering face of Ice Cube (who has a small role in the picture).”

Burnett followed this feature with the short, When It Rains (1995), which was chosen as one of the ten best films of 1990s by the Chicago Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum. Rosenbaum went on to choose Killer of Sheep and To Sleep with Anger as two of the Top 100 American Films as Alternate to the American Film Institute Top 100.

Working with movie stars James Earl Jones and Lynn Redgrave, Burnett directed the surreal interracial romantic comedy The Annihilation of Fish (1999), which won awards at the Newport Beach, Sarasota, and Worldfest Houston Film Festivals.

Burnett traveled to Africa to make Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation (2007), a powerful, epic biography of Sam Nujoma, the leader of the South West Africa People’s Movement and the nation’s first president. Based on Nujoma’s memoirs, the film stars Carl Lumbly and Danny Glover.

Throughout his career, Burnett has also embraced the documentary form — many of his earliest film efforts walk the line between fiction and nonfiction cinema. He directed the 1991 documentary about U.S. immigration, America Becoming; Dr. Endesha Ida Mae Holland (1998), a portrait of a civil rights activist, playwright, and teacher; and Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (2003) about the leader of an important slave rebellion.

Burnett made his television debut directing his acclaimed 1996 Disney Channel film, Nightjohn. Based on the Gary Paulsen’s novel, the film tells the story of a slave’s risky attempt to teach an orphaned slave girl to read and write. New Yorker film critic Terrence Rafferty called Nightjohn the “best American movie of 1996.” The TV film received a 1997 Special Citation Award from the National Society of Film Critics “for a film whose exceptional quality and origin challenge strictures of the movie marketplace.”

Burnett’s television work also includes the 1998 ABC two-part mini-series Oprah Winfrey Presents: The Wedding, starring Halle Barry and Lynn Whitfield; Selma, Lord, Selma (1999), about the infamous 1965 “Bloody Sunday” civil rights march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge; a film about Negro League Baseball, Finding Buck McHenry (2000); Relative Stranger (2009), a drama about a painful family reunion; and Warming By the Devil’s Fire (2003), an episode in Martin Scorsese’s six-part documentary The Blues for PBS. Burnett also worked on the PBS miniseries American Family: The Journey of Dreams, which debuted in 2002.

In 1997, the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival honored Burnett with a retrospective, Witnessing For Everyday Heroes, presented at New York’s Walter Reade Theater of Lincoln Center. Burnett has been awarded grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the J. P. Getty Foundation, as well as a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship (a.k.a. “the genius grant”).

Burnett is also the winner of the American Film Institute’s Maya Deren Award, and one of the very few people ever to be honored with Howard University’s Paul Robeson Award for achievement in cinema. The Chicago Tribune has called him “one of America’s very best filmmakers” and the New York Times named him “the nation’s least-known great filmmaker and most gifted black director.” Burnett has even had a day named after him — in 1997, the mayor of Seattle declared February 20 to be Charles Burnett Day.

Burnett has been cited as a major influence by many current artists, musicians, writers, and filmmakers, including Barry Jenkins, Sherman Alexie, Lance Hammer, Matthew David Wilder, Bill Jennings. David Gordon Green, Nelson Kim, Kahlil Joseph, Ava DuVernay, Lynne Ramsay, Monona Wali, Mos Def, Pamela J. Peters, and hip hop duo Shabazz Palaces.

Burnett’s next feature film project, Tanner’s Song, pays homage from Bobby Kimball — original lead signer of the Grammy Award-winning band, Toto — to the wise man who mentored him. Danny Glover has expressed interest in playing the role of Tanner.

Charles Burnett lives Los Angeles. He is the father of two sons, Jonathan and Steven, and the grandfather of Malia and Leila Burnett.

“I don’t think I’m capable of answering problems that have been here for many years. But I think the best I can do is present them in a way where one wants to solve these problems.”

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