Why isn't Charles Burnett, director of the engrossing new video release called "Nightjohn," one of the best-known talents in American film?
One reason may be his personality. He's a gentle, modest man with little interest in self-promotion or controversy, and these qualities shine through his frequently quiet, subtle movies. Neither he nor his stories are geared for competition with the erupting volcanoes and exploding fireballs that rule the box office these days.
Another reason is that he's an African-American filmmaker who explores widely appealing themes through mostly black characters. Although his insights are so perceptive that audiences of all races and ethnicities can easily be touched by them, white moviegoers may have gotten the notion that his movies are not geared to their interests.
Other black filmmakers have occasionally broken this barrier. Spike Lee did it with the sheer forcefulness of his approach in the brilliant "Do the Right Thing," and John Singleton may be poised for a hit with "Rosewood," an eagerly awaited drama due later this month. But black filmmaking remains an uphill battle with general audiences, and an artist like Burnett deserves some sort of Oscar simply for staying in business.
Which he has bravely done for the past 20 years, beginning with "Killer of Sheep" in 1977, a prizewinner at the Sundance and Berlin filmfests, and continuing through the sensitive family fable "To Sleep With Anger," starring Danny Glover, and the thoughtful police drama "The Glass Shield," about race and gender issues in a California sheriff's office.
"Nightjohn" brought Burnett's artistry to viewers when it premired on the Disney Channel last June, and theatrical audiences are now getting their first look at it in a Burnett tribute sponsored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, through Feb. 13 at the Walter Reade Theater here.
This seven-film show is subtitled "Witnessing for Everyday Heroes," and it's hard to imagine a better label for Burnett's career. Nearly all his most memorable characters are proudly ordinary people who take on dramatic interest by drawing on the resources of sensitivity and intelligence that are part of everyone's fundamental heritage.
Also important to Burnett are the depths to be found in the most commonplace situations. These range from the middle-class household visited by a mysterious old friend in "To Sleep With Anger" to the police department shot through with prejudice in "The Glass Shield."
The new "Nightjohn" continues this pattern with its vivid story of African-American courage in the darkest days of slavery. The heroine is a 12-year-old slave girl named Sarny who acquires a forbidden gift: the ability to read. She learns this in secret lessons from a rebellious young slave who sees his safety as less important than the chance to help his people throw off chains of forced ignorance and oppression.
Burnett has filmed "Nightjohn" with a glowing beauty that juxtaposes the horrors of the slave system with acknowledgments of the joys and satisfactions provided by family and community life. The movie is at once a political statement - reminding us how profoundly black Americans were affected by the traumas of their dehumanized status - and a deeply moral tale about the powers of love, loyalty, and learning.
At a time when racial discussions are dominated by arguments about "ebonics," with debaters often revealing more about their fears and biases than their capacity for helpful action, "Nightjohn" comes as a compassionate and constructive contribution to American culture. The same can be said for Burnett's entire career.
* 'Nightjohn' is rated PG-13; it contains violence against slaves and a fairly graphic childbirth scene. It stars Beau Bridges and Carl Lumbly and has just been released on cassette by Hallmark Home Entertainment.