After seeing the movie "Moonstruck," the Italian American romantic comedy about a spinsterish accountant and a baker who fall in love, a friend of mine wondered aloud why there were no films like it that starred black actors. Films, he went on, that are rooted in black culture and black life, films that treat black people as people -- no more, no less.
"To Sleep With Anger," the new bittersweet family drama by black independent filmmaker Charles Burnett, just might be that film. Small, warm and unpretentious, it is the story of a family whose latent conflicts explode with the arrival of a mysterious stranger from the father's past. It is well acted and well written, steeped in the blues, spirituals and folkways of the Southern Negro past as well as the urban striving of the Northern present. Though it is no "Moonstruck" -- it has moments of humor, but is more brooding at its core -- in countless gratifying ways it does what my friend wanted a movie about blacks to do. And, just as important, it is an interesting and overdue corrective to what -- given the praise and attention heaped on Spike Lee, Robert Townsend, Keenen Ivory Wayans and the Hudlin Brothers, Warrington and Reginald -- most people have come to think of as contemporary black filmmaking.
Wittingly -- I know it is uncharitable even to suggest it -- or unwittingly, most contemporary black filmmakers have trafficked in the stereotypes they say they set out to destroy. There is no denying the humor in Wayans's "I'm Gonna Git You Sucka" or Townsend's "Hollywood Shuffle," yet at times each film came uncomfortably close to exploiting the very stereotypes -- bossy black women, black men as pimps, violent studs or servile Uncle Toms -- it lampooned.
In much the same fashion, "She's Gotta Have It," Lee's first film to enjoy widespread release, wanted to have it both ways. On the one hand, as film professor Paula Matabane of Howard University has pointed out, the film has feminist pretensions. Lee presents a heroine who "turns the tables on male dominance" by insisting on her freedom to express her sexuality, without promises, without commitment, "on her own terms and her own turf." On the other hand, when she does, she is punished by a jealous lover who attempts to assert his dominance by raping her.
Though Lee originally proclaimed his "She's Gotta Have It" an example of "guerrilla filmmaking" -- he made assets out of such potential drawbacks as a low budget and a cast of unknowns -- each of his subsequent films has gotten bigger and glossier and more in the Hollywood mold. And each, especially the latest, "Mo' Better Blues," has featured steamier and steamier sex. But are the obligatory sex scenes there because Lee believes them integral to the story? Or has he succumbed to the Hollywood convention that sex equals maturity, which in turn equals seriousness, which in turn equals (maybe) art? Or is it that Lee knows nothing sells a film like sex? Or that he knows black men and women rarely get the chance to see people who look like them being tender to each other on the screen?
You don't have to ask those kinds of questions about Charles Burnett's films, among them "Killer of Sheep," "My Brother's Wedding" and "Bless Their Little Hearts" -- he wrote and shot the last, though it was directed by his UCLA classmate Billy Woodberry. (If you haven't heard of these films, it is because they are shown mostly at festivals and at screenings such as those sponsored by the Black Film Institute of the University of the District of Columbia.) All are conscious attempts to make art -- in the sense of rendering experience truthfully and faithfully -- instead of mere entertainment. As such they are more akin to literature, the plays of August Wilson, say, or the short stories of James Alan McPherson, than to conventional film. They are also deliberately paced (some would say slow), with almost none of the crackling, nervous urban energy that marked "She's Gotta Have It" and "Do the Right Thing."
While eminently accessible, Burnett's are not easy films. He does not condescend to his audience with Hollywood conventions -- simple stories where good and evil are clearly, and immediately, defined; fancy camera work and tricky editing, musical cues that tell the viewer what (and when) to feel; and sentimental, unearned happy endings. Nor does he resort to the easy solutions inherent in conventional racial wisdom. His characters are real people in real situations, trying, as all of us must, to work out their destinies.
The slaughterhouse worker in "Killer of Sheep" may be trapped in his job because of his lack of education and because of the color of his skin. In the end, however, his are human problems, and it is his responsibility to figure out what to do about them. In much the same way, when "Bless Their Little Hearts" looks at what happens to a family when the husband and father suddenly finds himself unemployed, this is no abstract sociological inquiry. By the time the film ends, we have gotten to know people we otherwise encounter only as names in a newspaper or faces in a television report.
The "hero" of "My Brother's Wedding" (my favorite of Burnett's films and somewhat of a thematic cousin of "To Sleep With Anger") is Pierce, a man in his thirties who is still living in his parents' house, still working in their dry-cleaning shop, still trying to decide what to do with his life. His brother, a lawyer about to marry another lawyer, is held up to him as an example of what he should be. When Pierce's best friend, Soldier, is released from prison, the two begin to roam the streets the way they did when they were in high school. But soon Pierce must choose between his friend and his family. Throughout the film Pierce says "Gotta run" whenever he is faced with a difficult choice; yet the one time it is important for him to run, he cannot.
The late Kathleen Collins, one of the best black women filmmakers and an inspiration to countless younger filmmakers, once told me that she felt a special kinship with Charles Burnett, because they were both concerned with subtle moral issues. Like Burnett's earlier films, "To Sleep With Anger" is also highly moral -- one of the things he is saying is that we have a responsibility to preserve the integrity of our families and the larger culture that has shaped us.
It is unfortunate, but "To Sleep With Anger" may have a hard time finding an audience because we have come to expect certain things of a "black film." Burnett continually confounds those expectations. Though his characters will be familiar to black viewers -- all of us have aunts and uncles, grandfathers and grandmothers, cousins and friends like the people in "To Sleep With Anger" -- none of them is a stereotype, old or new. There are no exotic primitives here, no revved-up, boom-box-toting B-boys, no dusky black maidens baring all for the no-good mens they love. The titillations of sex are entirely absent. There are few white actors, and only two have speaking parts. There is almost no violence. Most important, this is the kind of film where you need to pay attention -- Burnett's characters talk to each other, and what they have to say is important.
All of this would suggest that viewers -- and perhaps the distributor of the film -- may not know just what to make of "To Sleep With Anger." Curiously, though it is a compelling drama, ads have stressed the film's humor. It would have been more accurate to describe this film that manages -- like the blues -- to be both gritty and elegant as Burnett's "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (and Women)." Much of it is about universal conflicts -- the younger son in the film is a banker so busy making money that he neglects his family, yet he craves his father's approval -- but it is also a tribute to the traditions our grandparents brought with them during the Great Migration.
Charles Burnett was part of what Tufts University English professor Clyde Taylor, one of the most important critics of black film, has called "The L.A. Rebellion." Taylor uses the term to refer to a group of black filmmakers -- among them Haile Gerima, who has for many years taught at Howard University, Billy Woodberry and Burnett -- who attended film school at UCLA at roughly the same time in the mid-'70s. They found inspiration, Woodberry has said, in many places outside of the glossy, formulaic Hollywood aesthetic -- but mostly in films from Asia, Africa and Latin America. Though not a formal collective, they knew and influenced each other in their "search for a more sensitive, patient realism" as they strove to create a cinema that would reflect the black American culture and the black American experience they knew.
Charles Burnett's films are perhaps the most successful and accessible articulation of that aim.
David Nicholson is a writer and editor for The Washington Post's Book World and the founding editor of the quarterly magazine Black Film Review.