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Four Decades Later, an L.A. Rebel Continues to Resist

Ever since his 1978 debut film, director Charles Burnett has been a critical darling. Now if only the box office would catch on to the hype.
Charles Burnett poses on February 3rd, 2009, in Manosque, France. (Photo: Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP/Getty Images)

Charles Burnett poses on February 3rd, 2009, in Manosque, France. (Photo: Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP/Getty Images)

A stranger taps Charles Burnett on the shoulder. “I think you dropped something, sir,” says the man, his finger pointing out a smattering of white papers lying at his feet. Burnett, briefly startled, thanks him and begins picking up the scraps. “And, by the way,” the stranger says to Burnett’s stooped figure. “I just wanted to say, I enjoyed your film yesterday.” Burnett, eyes wide under the hood of his black baseball cap, casts a searching look in the man’s direction.

Once the stranger has turned away, Burnett shoots the papers a quick look. “These are bills,” he explains with the grim expression of someone who really doesn’t like dealing with bills. “I don’t need those.” He stuffs them into the pockets of his sporty black zip-up anyway.

It’s one day after Burnett’s To Sleep With Anger has (re-)screened at the Ebertfest film festival, and Burnett is in a local coffee shop in Champaign, Illinois, nursing a plastic water cup he brought from his hotel. First released in 1990, To Sleep With Anger told the story of Harry Mention (played by Danny Glover), a mysterious and manipulative traveler visiting old friends — a couple and their two grown children — in Los Angeles. Over the course of the film, Harry’s visit opens up intergenerational, regional, and fraternal rifts within all characters involved.

Like so many of Burnett’s films, To Sleep With Anger was a critical darling but bombed at the box office. Released across 18 theaters nationwide, it earned just $1.2 million. But in 2015 Sony gave To Sleep With Anger another lease on life — and put the spotlight on Burnett, a filmmaker who has gotten used to making his work on the margins of the Hollywood establishment. (Winning a MacArthur Genius Grant allowed Burnett to purchase medical insurance for his family, not to mention a home.)

Since being digitally restored by Sony in 2015, To Sleep With Anger has gone on to play at the Venice Film Festival, the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the Chicago International Film Festival, and, most recently, Ebertfest. It’s no wonder the film’s taken on a second life: At a time when African-American stereotypes remain all too prevalent onscreen, To Sleep With Anger presents to viewers an African-American family with career problems and sibling drama that is at once personal to Burnett and universal in its story of dysfunction and love.

It was always evident, as early as his days as a film student at the University of California–Los Angeles, that Burnett would go the auteur route. It was at UCLA that Burnett became a member of the L.A. Rebellion, an independent black film movement that also included Julie Dash, Haile Gerima, and Billy Woodberry. Through the L.A. Rebellion, he began working on films that offered alternative portraits of black life than those presented in Hollywood and “blaxploitation” films. His education hit a crescendo in 1973, when his film school thesis (and feature directorial debut), Killer of Sheep, won an award at the Berlin International Film Festival and became one of the first 50 films to be inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.

But in the years that followed, mainstream success largely evaded Burnett. Or perhaps it was Burnett who evaded success: All of his films feature friends and family in key roles, and are notable for their slow pace and protracted endings. Not surprisingly, none of his films have exceeded $3.3 million at the box office. Despite his prolific output (14 feature-length films) and the high pedigree (a shelf load of awards and that MacArthur), Burnett still can’t get television executives to return his calls.

Recently, his profile’s been on the rise. Over the last 10 years, film festivals and distributors have given wider distribution — and more press — to Burnett’s films than ever before. In 2007, Milestone Films released Killer of Sheep on home video for the first time, ushering in a new batch of mostly glowing reviews from major critics (and a $400,000 limited-release box office total). The re-release of To Sleep With Anger is the latest in this series of redemptive steps (though Burnett would never call it that).

Burnett maintains a sense of humor about To Sleep With Anger’s recent popularity renaissance; he jokes that he’s finally “gotten even” with the studio types who didn’t agree with his vision for the film. He speaks ruefully — and perhaps, looking back now, a tad gleefully — about executives who read his script for To Sleep With Anger in the 1980s with indifference. He remembers one executive in particular telling him he would never be Horton Foote (the screenwriter of To Kill a Mockingbird).

That last point is the greatest irony: Twenty years later, he was shooting a film in Namibia when he received a call saying he had won a Horton Foote Award for screenwriting. It had to be picked up in person in L.A. “I’ll be right there,” he says he told the caller.

To Sleep With Anger is a personal story for Burnett, who moved from Vicksburg, Mississippi, to L.A. when he was three years old. Like the film’s central family, Burnett and his family raised chickens in his backyard in L.A.; Burnett annoyed his neighbors when he practiced the trumpet, similar to one of the children in the film (played, in fact, by Burnett’s own son). And, like the film’s tortured son character, Burnett found himself at odds with a traditionalist family. “We came along and rejected anything our parents did because it was kind of demeaning,” he says. It wasn’t until later in life that he came to appreciate that kinship for what it was. “The fact was that that village-like situation was so much a benefit to the community,” he says.

If the film’s goal was to revolutionize images of the black family onscreen, early returns were not good. After its release on October 12th, 1990, To Sleep With Anger performed five times better in white neighborhoods than black neighborhoods, and made just $325,000 in its first month. In November of 1990, the New York Times ran an article questioning the film’s marketing strategy, and, in one 2009 essay, NPR news correspondent Karen Grigsby Bates criticized the film’s distributor, Samuel Goldwyn, for focusing its public relations efforts on black African-American newspapers, which tended to release weekly rather than daily.

According to Burnett, the film’s publicist originally suggested they advertise in a magazine that would be distributed to all the churches — a suggestion, he says, that Goldwyn ignored. “They wanted to capitalize on the fact that it was a black film, and people will sort of automatically support it as part of the community. So they thought that they should be doing it for free, in a sense,” he says. Black church outreach campaigns have been credited with fueling box office returns for The Butler and The Birth of a Nation — both of which garnered sizable black audiences.

Financial failures aside, Burnett recalls moments of creative fulfillment in that initial theatrical run. At a film festival in Hawaii, one white woman told him she was shocked to learn black people had washing machines. “We have a certain advantage, people of color, because Hollywood produces enough where we get an idea of what white people’s lives are like, to some extent,” he says. “But the reverse is not the case.”

Now, Burnett is working on a documentary about the integration of the American hospital system. Lyndon B. Johnson, he explains, doesn’t get the credit he deserves for making integration happen. He’s also trying to get a few new scripts funded, even as retrospectives of his past work keep compelling him back to revisit old stories.

As he talks about the documentary, a man sitting behind him in the coffee shop turns around and briefly interrupts: “It was nice to see a black family just being a black family and not committing crimes. I just wanted to thank you for that.”

Is this sort of impromptu recognition par the course for Burnett? “No,” he says. “Not at all.”