Charles Burnett

Tuesday night, filmmaker Charles Burnett was invited to screen his new documentary, Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property, for a class here at Caltech and facilitate a Q&A afterward. A graduate of UCLA, Burnett is one of the most highly-esteemed filmmakers currently working in the US and he continues to be active in independent and black filmmaking circles. Although he has taken a less mainstream–and more ideologically nuanced–approach to his career than popular names like Spike Lee or Larry Clark, Burnett’s films (including 1977’s Killer of Sheep, 1990’s To Sleep With Anger, and 1996’s Nightjohn) are visually strong works with vivid characters and complex undertones. As Nelson Kim writes in Senses of Cinema:

Charles Burnett is the epitome of a cult heroóalmost famous for not being famous. On the rare occasion his work attracts any notice in the mainstream press, the article will be sure to mention how little attention his work receives in the mainstream press. Despite the public acclaim of critics and fellow filmmakers, the festival awards and retrospectives, the MacArthur Foundation ìgeniusî grant, the Library of Congress’ selection of Killer of Sheep for its National Film Registryódespite his legendary status among a small cohort of cinephiles, Burnett goes unrecognized by the larger culture, the pop marketplace. His films are known to few. But among those few they’re loved by many.

Nat Turner (1800-1831) was a notorious plantation slave in Virginia who organized the only “successful” revolt in American slavery, forming a loose band of marauders who killed 59 people in plantation homes before they were captured and executed. A physician named Thomas Gray interviewed Turner in jail and subsequently published The Confessions of Nat Turner, but historians now question its accuracy. In 1967, novelist William Styron fictionalized the events of the rebellion–as well as Turner’s private life–and won a Pulitzer Prize for his efforts. While Styron’s novel was widely praised in white literary and popular circles, it was criticized in the black community for framing Turner’s actions in the context of a disturbed sexuality and his illicit love for a white plantation woman. Instead of viewing Turner as a folk hero who retaliated against his oppressors, Styron’s novel suggested Turner was a psychologically disturbed murderer.

Burnett’s documentary intercuts talking heads (historians, activists, and commentators) with beautifully filmed reenactments of the various images of Nat Turner through the years, from such sources as Gray’s interview to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Dred (1856), Randolph Edmonds’ 1935 theatrical production, and Styron’s novel. The resulting Rashomon-like narrative structure presents various images and points of view allowing the viewer to come to his or her own conclusions. It’s a provocative mosaic which moves from drama to reflection to exposition and back again with remarkable fluidity.

After the screening, the soft-spoken Burnett talked about his own conflicting thoughts regarding the film. In a refreshing way, he seemed as critical toward his film as any other viewer and commented on how difficult it was to find the funding for the project (a five-year process) and how the final product was a compromise in length (initially conceived at two hours, the film now runs a PBS-friendly 58 minutes) and emphasis (instead of focusing on Turner’s position as a folk hero, Styron and his novel are prominently featured). Burnett claims he could never obtain the financing to do the film he would really like to make, a feature about Turner’s courage in the face of oppression and his heroic efforts to strike back. This conception of Turner would be impossible to promote, Burnett suggested, in a white-dominated culture that perpetually emphasizes the deaths of the plantation families rather than the horrifying realities of slavery.

It was at this point that several members of the audience–mostly young, white college students–began to openly question Burnett’s perspective. “How can you call him a ‘hero’ if he killed so many people?” they asked. “We’re talking about oppressed people,” Burnett explained. “Sure, Turner’s group killed about 60 people, but what is that compared to the five million people who were killed on the boats from Africa?” “Maybe what you’re trying to say,” one student offered Burnett, “is that you admire Turner’s ‘spirit’ but not his actions?” No, Burnett assured the student, Turner was a warrior fighting a system that was killing him and those around him on a daily basis–he certainly didn’t establish or perpetuate the system of slavery. “Why don’t they just keep talking about Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass?” one student asked.

As for myself, I was immediately reminded of two films I had seen in the last couple years. The first was Claude Lanzmann’s 2001 follow-up to his landmark Holocaust documentary Shoah (1985), entitled Sobibor, October 14, 1943, 2 p.m., which recounts the only successful armed revolt on record at a Nazi extermination camp. The surviving inmates conspired together and executed each one of their German guards using hatchets. Lanzmann’s film is tough to sit through–it’s told in unflinching detail by one of the revolt’s participants, who describes the logistics and the brutal efficiency of his fellow conspirators. While their solution is unquestionably violent and shocking, no one in the theatre seemed to judge the Jews harshly for their act of desperation; at the end of the film, Lanzmann lists the numbers and dates of the people exterminated within Sobibor for years, and as each day ticks off additional thousands, the gruesomeness and unfathomable horror of oppression and suffering is simply overwhelming. Rather than a detached moral judgment of the ethics of resistance, one is left simply with a profound sense of sadness and empathy for the sufferers.

The other film I watched recently was Sankofa (1993), a powerful film about a fictional slave revolt that its director, Burnett’s colleague Haile Gerima, described as his attempt to present a story about slaves taking fate into their own hands. “The plantation school of thought believed [resistance and rebellion] was always provoked by outsiders,” Gerima said, “that Africans were not capable of having that human need [themselves].” Sankofa is one of the most successful independent films in history–because US distributors and video chains like Blockbuster Video refused to carry it, Gerima and his staff have hand-carried the film across the US and scheduled community screenings promoted solely through word-of-mouth. When Burnett suggests he could never obtain the financing for a film about a slave revolt, Gerima’s film is a perfect example.

It struck me that there seemed to be a profound disconnect between many of the students in the room and the realities of the slave trade and plantation life in general. While most educated people would quickly denounce the institution of slavery, the resonant empathy we find in other oppressive situations–like the Holocaust–seemed to be utterly absent. Is it that our culture is simply more inundated with Holocaust imagery? Or is Burnett on to something when he suggests racial and class backgrounds continue to inform one’s perceptions of these struggles? After experiencing the dynamics of the discussion on Tuesday, I’m inclined to agree with him.