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A scene from To Sleep with Anger

Interchange – The Troublesome Films of Charles Burnett


We’re joined by James Naremore to discuss the cinema of Charles Burnett, who’s been called the nation’s least-known great filmmaker and the country’s most important African-American director. His major works, such as Killer of Sheep, To Sleep with Anger, The Glass Shield, and Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property explore history’s effect on the structure of family. In films about working-class African-Americans that denounce cultural stereotypes and clichés, virtually the whole of Burnett’s career has been devoted to the proposition that Black Lives Matter. Naremore’s new book is Charles Burnett: A Cinema of Symbolic Knowledge (University of California Press).

Naremore says of Burnett: “No career is more deserving of an Oscar. Killer of Sheep (1977), which concerns a black father in Watts who works in a slaughterhouse, has been listed as one of the 100 hundred essential pictures by the National Society of Film Critics and was among the first films to be designated a “National Treasure” by the Library of Congress. To Sleep with Anger (1990), is a masterful blending of humor and gothic moods within a black family. The Glass Shield (1994) is a powerful account of police corruption and murder, based on actual events. Nightjohn (1996), is a moving account of Southern slavery told from the point of view of a young black girl, and belongs in company with the finest TV films ever made; and the half-documentary, half-fictional Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (2003) is in my view the best treatment of the subject in either film or print.”

One of the features of my community is that it does not have a center, does not have an elder statesman, and more important, does not have roots; in essence it is just a wall with graffiti on it. Life is going to work, coming home, making sure every entrance is firmly locked to keep the thugs out, thinking on how to move up in the world or being a member of a street gang standing at neighborhood corners, thinking about nothing and going nowhere. In both cases what is missing is not only the spiritual but mother wit. Even though there is a church on every other corner, it only holds services once a week and it is not a dominant part of the life of the community. It is like a ship that has lost its rudder. It seems that those of us who observe tradition and have a sense of continuity can at least see the horizon. External forces more than internal forces have made the black community what it is today. There has always been the attempt to destroy our consciousness of who we were, to deny the past, and to destroy the family structure; and, since for us each day has not a yesterday or a tomorrow, to make the use of experience a lost art. Charles Burnett, “Inner City Blues” (1989)

Segment One – Killer of Sheep
Segment Two – To Sleep with Anger
Segment Three – The Glass Shield
Segment Four – Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property

James Naremore is Emeritus Chancellors’ Professor of Communication and Culture and English at Indiana University and author of The Magic World of Orson Welles, Acting in the Cinema, More than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts, On Kubrick, and An Invention without a Future: Essays on Cinema.

“Tears of Ole Miss” by John Handy
“Precious Memories” by Sister Rosetta Tharpe
“Black Man Sings the Blues” performed by Lance Eaton and Ernie Banks
“Give Me Freedom” by Stephen James Taylor
Closing Credits Song (To Sleep with Anger) – Ramón Flores, Trumpet

Producer & Host: Doug Storm
Assistant Producer: Rob Schoon
Studio Engineer: Bryce Martin
Executive Producer: Wes Martin

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