Who is Charles Burnett?

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“I think a strong case can be made that Charles Burnett is the most gifted and important black filmmaker this country has ever had…”, is how Chicago Reader film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum described this unique American cinematic cult hero, reads a press statement from the organizers of the Wild Cinema Windhoek International Film Festival. Burnett arrived on Tuesday for participation as film workshop facilitator of the festival, which is to be officially opened this afternoon by the capital’s mayor, Mathew Shikongo at the Zoo Park. Along with Spike Lee, Charles Burnett was among the most crucial African-American cinematic voices to emerge during the final decades of the 20th century. Unlike Lee, however, Burnett earned little mainstream recognition for his work. Motivated to action by years of one-dimensional black stereotypes and story lines in Hollywood features, Burnett has endeavoured to bring to the screen a deeply personal, realistic portrayal of contemporary African-American existence, drawing his inspiration from the work of the Italian neo-realist movement. Born in Mississippi in 1943, Burnett was raised in Los Angeles, where in the late ’60s and early ’70s he attended U.C.L.A.’s graduate film programme alongside fellow African-American movie innovators Larry Clark, Julie Dash, Haile Gerima, and Billy Woodberry. After serving as the cinematographer on 1976’s Bush Mama, Burnett made his feature debut in 1977 with the acclaimed Killer of Sheep. The victim of poor distribution, the picture never gained the widespread notice it deserved, but in 1981 it won honours at the Berlin International Film Festival, as well as what later evolved into the Sundance Film Festival, and it was also among the first works chosen for inclusion in the Library of Congress’ Historic Film Registry. After winning a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1980, Burnett began work on his sophomore feature, 1983’s My Brother’s Wedding, but he again faced insurmountable distribution difficulties resulting in an abortive release. Upon receiving a 1988 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship grant, Burnett began work on his masterpiece, 1990’s To Sleep With Anger. Though it starred box-office favourite Danny Glover, the film was screened in only 18 theatres nationally, with an advertising budget of less than US$400 000. Burned again by the Hollywood system, Burnett next turned to television, where in 1991 he filmed a documentary about US immigration titled America Becoming. Returning to feature films, he began reworking The Glass Shield, a long-dormant screenplay about police corruption. When American financing fell through, he received backing from the French production company CIBY 2000, but the company later forced Burnett to relinquish the final cut, and the film was also edited by American distributor Miramax prior to its 1994 release. Nightjohn, an adaptation of a Gary Paulsen novel, premiered to great acclaim on the Disney Channel in 1996. After directing two more made-for-TV features, Oprah Winfrey Presents: The Wedding (1998) and Selma Lord Selma (1999), Burnett returned to the screen as the director of a quirky romance, The Annihilation of Fish, starring James Earl Jones and Lynn Redgrave. Description of Films to Be Screened in Namibia Annihilation of Fish Charles Burnett directed this offbeat comic romance about a pair of aging eccentrics whose imaginary companions sometimes interfere with their “real” lives. Fish (James Earl Jones) is an elderly Jamaican expatriate who has spent much of his adult life in a mental institution in New York. One of the clearest manifestations of Fish’s madness is Hank, an imaginary nemesis whom Fish must often beat until he obeys. After he’s released, Fish heads to Los Angeles, where he takes a room in a boarding house run by Mrs Muldroone (Margot Kidder). Living across the hall from Fish is Poinsetta (Lynn Redgrave), an older woman who may be crazier than Fish: she drinks a great deal, loves to listen to Puccini, and is convinced that the long-dead composer is following her around (and is in love with her). In time, Fish and Poinsetta become friends and then lovers, but when she accidentally “kills” Hank, Fish is suddenly robbed of one of the only constants in his life. The Annihilation of Fish was screened in the 1999 Toronto Film Festival. ~ Mark Deming, All Movie Guide. To Sleep with Anger African-American drifter Danny Glover shows up at the LA doorstep of his old pal Paul Butler. In the spirit of auld lang syne, Butler takes Glover in, though his wife (Mary Alice) is not happy with this intrusion. She already has enough on her hands contending with her grown live-in son Richard Brooks and his real-estate agent wife Sheryl Lee Ralph. Glover ingratiates himself by reminding the family of their Southern roots; less positively, he drinks a great deal, and brings suspicious-looking cronies into the household. When Butler suffers a stroke, Glover assumes charge of the house – whereupon his charm evaporates and disaster follows. But Glover isn’t really the villain of To Sleep With Anger: everyone in the film is depicted in all-too-human shades of gray. This effort by African American writer/ director Charles Burnett was the first of his films to attract widespread critical notice, almost 13 years after he created the seminal Killer of Sheep. ~ Hal Erickson, All Movie Guide. Warming by the Devil’s Fire Director Charles Burnett presents a tale about a young boy’s encounter with his family in Mississippi in the 1950s, and intergenerational tensions between the heavenly strains of gospel and the devilish moans of the blues.