For many of us who have seen it, Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1977) remains this year’s best distributed film. Although it was his thesis project at UCLA and one of the first movies chosen for the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 1990, it wasn’t until this year that the music rights were cleared by Milestone Films for national distribution, and Burnett’s belated praise has been something to savor. Better still, Milestone is also releasing the director’s cut of Burnett’s second feature (with its own difficult history), My Brother’s Wedding (1983), on DVD next month (along with Sheep and some acclaimed short films). It screens at the UCLA film archive this week, and it’s not to be missed as a rare and important portrait of black, lower-middle class life in south central Los Angeles during the early-’80s; its seriocomic tragedy suggests provocative consequences to the kind of existential pressures so memorably introduced in Sheep.
As such, My Brother’s Wedding is a more narrative-driven film than its predecessor, though it still largely plays out in a matter of vignettes that suspensefully converge in the final act. Pierce (Everett Silas) is a 30-year-old, frustrated but well-meaning idealist who works at his parents’ dry cleaning shop after dropping out of the industrial workplace. He gets along with his principled, churchgoing mother and playfully cantankerous father, but he bristles at his brother’s fiancÈe, Sonia, an upper class black woman intent on climbing the social ladder. Pierce would rather spend his life free of attachments, hanging out with his ex-con buddy named Soldier, and he remains spiritually immobilized between romanticized notions of the lower classes and his hatred of “selling out” to the system.
The film develops breezily, following Pierce as he pals around with friends, visits relatives, encounters eccentric customers, and generates his family’s ire by getting into arguments with Sonia. Rich humor abounds: Pierce and his father maintain what seems like an intermittent wrestling match regardless of their location; an enormous man asks for his Sunday pants to be repaired but Pierce’s mother suggests they “lose” them and give him an unclaimed pair; a sassy adolescent prematurely and ineffectively flirts with Pierce. Juxtaposed is the film’s awareness of more difficult elements: families answer doors holding a pistol behind their back; random threats become unexpectedly serious dangers; competing loyalties between friends and family compel irreconcilable differences. The film teems with sociological detail without ever feeling studied; it simply reflects the air breathed by Burnett shooting in his childhood neighborhood and it’s personified by a multitude of charismatic nonprofessional actors.
The film’s authenticity is achieved not only in its real locations, but also in its surprising rejection of mainstream codes; in an era of violent Blaxploitation cinema, Burnett develops his own tonal vocabulary to reveal the lives and aspirations of his everyday characters. The acting rhythms are slower and less polished than Hollywood productions, but their offbeat sincerity is so consistently rendered that like the greatest of films, its rigorous assertion of new ways to characterize people is ultimately moving and refreshing. Watch the scene when a young woman haltingly tells someone over the phone of a relative’s death, the actress underplays the scene with simmering emotion in a way that speaks volumes.
I’ve only seen this 82-minute director’s cut, so I can’t speak for how the film has changed from the 115-minute assembly that toured a few festivals in the early-’80s, but its opening images of an elderly man singing “Amazing Grace”–removed from any narrative context–is precisely the kind of thing apt to enrage distributors, and it’s also the key to Burnett’s offhanded brilliance. It’s a thematic prelude to the film’s underlying preoccupation with personal values and their relationship to modernity. In his attempts to shirk responsibility, Pierce ultimately finds himself in a crisis of conflicting obligations, and it’s a testament to the film’s social and emotional honesty that his conflict holds as much dramatic weight as it does; Pierce is adrift between equally forbidding realms without sufficient bearings. Unlike so many films ostensibly about black life in the late-’70s and early-’80s, My Brother’s Wedding isn’t about high stakes drug-dealing or hit men, it’s about the difficult and ambiguous day-to-day living that ultimately supports a community and the individual search–humorous and distressing–for effective commitments.