Making Movies That Fill a Vacuum
Charles Burnett wants to correct stereotypes by conveying black society's uniqueness and moral sense. FILM: INTERVIEW
TORONTO — `NEVER go to bed angry'' is a piece of advice filmmaker Charles Burnett heard when he was growing up. It's the kind of saying that sounds like plain common sense but may also have a touch of superstition attached to it. The nuances of African-American folklore are one subject of Mr. Burnett's new movie, ``To Sleep With Anger,'' which paints a gentle yet vivid portrait of family relations in a Los Angeles household with roots in the deep South.
Warmly received at the Cannes filmfest and the Toronto Festival of Festivals earlier this year, the film plays Friday and Saturday at the New York Film Festival and then goes to theaters. Its merits include a long list of superb performances by Danny Glover, Mary Alice, Vonetta McGee, and others; and an insightful approach to African-American culture that neatly complements the more assertive tone of Spike Lee's movies.
Not every scene is equally distinguished, and the rhythm of the film is marred by occasional heavy-handed moments. Such details aside, however, ``To Sleep With Anger'' is one of the most exciting American movies to appear in recent years, establishing Burnett - who already has years of independent filmmaking to his credit - as a writer and director of enormous talent.
The story focuses on a Los Angeles family that's still influenced by traditions of the deep South - which Gideon, the head of the household, wants to instill in his sons. He meets with mixed success, and there's a danger that growing tensions will split the family apart. It's in this atmosphere that a new character shows up: Harry Mention, a smooth-tongued and somewhat mysterious gent who presents himself as a well-meaning friend but might have serious mischief up his sleeve. Full of stories, tricks, and superstitions, he settles into Gideon's home and starts causing subtle yet unmistakable havoc, leading to a wry and unexpected climax.
``I was trying to make a film that would [help to fill] a vacuum in the black community,'' Burnett told me the last time we talked, during the recent Toronto filmfest. ``I wanted to show a sense of tradition, folklore, and that sort of thing. There's an absence of that in movies.''
To accomplish this goal, Burnett drew on his own past. ``I grew up in a community where there was a lot of socialization,'' he recalls. ``People would sit on a porch and talk about things and joke ... and you didn't have to worry about drive-by shootings. You had a sense of who you were. There was a lot of richness in the community. There was a moral sense - always a good and a bad - and they were kind of obvious.''
Burnett feels a well-established sense of good versus bad is something today's movies sadly lack. ``It seems there's no distinction,'' he says. ``The good guys are just as brutal as the bad guys. The sort of heroes portrayed on TV now are often misfits - outside the law, doing things their own way. I wanted to do a film that talked about values, where people came from [and] where they're going.''
He also wanted to examine folklore, and the connections it makes between ``moral lessons and a person's actions - like in animal tales, where you go through an escape or something like that, and end up knowing more about the world and about yourself.''
Just as important, he was interested in probing family life - an important concern of Burnett, who has a two-year-old and a seven-year-old of his own, one of whom appears in the movie.
``I wanted to portray a family that's in a state of flux,'' he says, ``each one trying to impose values on the other. Statistics point out that, supposedly, most violence occurs in the family, so I guess these problems and conflicts are very crucial, even though they seem trivial. They have a powerful impact. I wanted to present that situation and show how its dimensions change when another element comes in, a character like [Harry]. ... The problem becomes one of life and death, a struggle between good and evil.''
Burnett agrees with a chuckle that his film is ``very weak'' in the sex-and-violence department, then explains why. ``You see the same things over and over again,'' he says, speaking of today's movies. ``I don't want to seem pretentious, but I think for society to progress, you have to add something.''
His attempt to ``add something'' focuses on the African-American community, which he knows from the inside. ``For people of color,'' he insists, ``it doesn't do a service to just follow the mainstream with the same sort of [movie] junk. There's something unique about different peoples, and what they've experienced. The thing is to not reduce it, not trivialize it, but show what it is, and show its universality.
``America has its groups and its segregation, and people have all these false perceptions of one another: They see `The Cosby Show' and think we're all like that, or they think we're all like what they see on the 6 o'clock news, with drive-by shootings and poverty. ... If you're concerned, you try to change people's attitudes about other people.''
One obstacle to this effort is that audiences may reject views of minority life that don't mesh with prejudices and preconceptions already held. Last year's ``Do the Right Thing,'' for example, was criticized by some reviewers for not painting a harsh enough portrait of ghetto life - and similar questions may be raised about Burnett's film.
``Yes,'' Burnett agrees. ``People say, `Where's the dope?' That's the problem with the 6 o'clock news. About 99 percent of the black community isn't involved in that sort of thing. They're involved in trying to survive and make a living, just like anybody else! There are more whites taking drugs than blacks, and more whites living in poverty than blacks. But when you show a film with middle-class blacks, or working-class struggling blacks, this [conflicts with] the media and how things are perceived.''
Movies, as well as TV programs, contribute to this problem - largely because of ingrained habits that govern the portrayal of minority characters. ``If they're making a movie about Yale or Harvard,'' says Burnett, ``they might have one or two blacks in the background, maybe because central casting sent them over. But if they're doing a story about prisons or prostitutes or drugs, you can be darn sure [minority people] are written into the script! That's the way [filmmakers] think.''
This has repercussions far beyond the Hollywood entertainment world. ``For a young kid growing up,'' Burnett points out, ``the proper images are needed.