The question of realism in narrative cinema is an interesting and complex one. When a group of Italian filmmakers in the 1940s, led by Roberto Rossellini but also composed of quite different figures such as Luchino Visconti and Vittorio De Sica, began to produce works that have come to comprise the Italian Neorealist canon, their films were praised for their stark authenticity, their work with non-actors, and their forthright engagement with issues of working-class life and the sociopolitical problems of postwar Europe. This organic, almost documentary quality of the Neorealist films made an important impression on the filmmakers of the French New Wave and on subsequent generations of independent filmmakers. But in fact, all of these core works of Italian neorealism, from Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945) onward, can be seen as, to some extent, highly constructed and even sculpted works: most of them deal with scripted scenarios and with the directors shaping the performances of the actors, even if these actors weren’t professionals. And like all fictional narrative films, their rhythms and meanings are dictated by the editing and by which moments the filmmakers choose to show us. Cinema, by its very nature, inherently offers a highly selective version of reality.
The early films of Charles Burnett, as well as those of his L.A. Rebellion contemporaries Julie Dash and Billy Woodberry, come out of this neorealist tradition. In films like Killer of Sheep (1977) and My Brother’s Wedding (1983), Burnett does display a real dedication to filming characters who have been relegated to the margins of commercial cinema: impoverished Black families living in Los Angeles ghettos (typically Watts, the neighborhood that Burnett himself grew up in), often unable to find work, navigating their way through environments marked by forms of systemic brutality and abuse. And yet, Burnett is decidedly not the type of filmmaker to bring his camera into the streets and start filming; his films are exquisitely shaped and textured through the wonderful performances of his actors, through his impressive, unhurried compositions, and through his poetic feeling for the community and the moments of warmth that sustain his struggling characters. Like John Cassavetes and Pedro Costa, his films are committed to showing us a vision of reality, but they achieve this vision through completely stylized means.
My Brother’s Wedding was Burnett’s second feature-length film, after the classic Killer of Sheep, and though it’s not as well-known as its predecessor, it’s another truly great movie that is worth anyone’s time. The film follows a young man, Pierce (Everett Silas), who becomes torn between commitments to his best friend, Soldier (Ronnie Bell), who has just been released from prison, and his brother, who’s engaged to a woman from a rich family which Pierce disdains. One quality that makes the film special is its pungent feeling for the community surrounding Pierce; Burnett likes to make the viewer aware of minor characters moving through the background spaces and the margins of shots, even if they don’t figure into the main narrative thread.
His shots often linger for a while before any cut occurs, letting the behavior of his characters emerge more slowly and naturally than most narrative cinema typically allows for. The physicality that Burnett imbues into these compositions helps to situate Pierce’s disillusionment in a larger context; one gets the impression that his problems don’t exist in isolation, but rather are just one living thread within a complex and shifting environment. The subject that ultimately emerges through these decisions is freedom — Pierce is searching for personal freedom, or a version of it anyway, but has to constantly make familial, economic, and situational compromises within the world that he occupies.
My Brother’s Wedding was originally released in a rough-cut form, and when Burnett finally had the chance to create a “Director’s Cut” version in 2007, he actually shortened the film to make it more succinct. Even though I find Burnett’s films to be quite accessible, his work has rarely been seen as commercial by producers and financiers, so it hasn’t always been easy for his films to get financed and released. As a result, he’s had an interestingly varied and eclectic career as a filmmaker, working in a number of different formats and modes of expressions. Some of his best work has been in short films, including his early film The Horse (1973), about a young boy who witnesses a horse being put down, and one of his greatest films, When It Rains (1995), about a griot who uses a jazz LP by John Handy as a bartering item to save a local woman and her daughter from getting evicted. He’s also done quite a bit of made-for-TV work, including Nightjohn (1996), a children’s film about slavery which originally aired on the Disney Channel, and a documentary about Nat Turner, Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (2003), which aired on PBS.
Dave Kehr has compared Burnett to the great French master Jean Renoir, and I find this comparison to be quite apt: both filmmakers, despite their formal adventurousness, are basically committed to creating a cinema of people, of faces and communities. Former IU professor James Naremore also published a book on Burnett’s work in 2017, entitled Charles Burnett: A Cinema of Symbolic Knowledge. If you still haven’t watched any of Burnett’s pictures, I implore you to give this great, underappreciated filmmaker a try.
My Brother’s Wedding is being screened at IU Cinema on September 30 with the short film African Woman, U.S.A. as part of the series Home Is Where the Heart Is: Black Cinema’s Exploration of Home.
In November of 2011, IU Cinema presented a selection of Burnett’s works, entitled Charles Burnett: Arriving at the Truth, in collaboration with the Black Film Center & Archive.
Jack Miller enjoys the films of Howard Hawks, Jacques Tourneur and John Ford. He graduated from Indiana University with a BA in English, and currently resides in Chicago. He also enjoys listening to country and disco music.