Acclaimed filmmaker Charles Burnett to receive Cinema Savant award

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Killer of Sheep

FilmScene—Chauncey — Thursday, Oct. 31 at 6 p.m., $9.50-12

Cinematic Arts Colloquium: A Conversation with Charles Burnett

FilmScene—Ped Mall — Friday, Nov. 1 at 3:30 p.m.

Cinema Savant: Charles Burnett

FilmScene—Chauncey — Saturday, Nov. 2 at 7 p.m.

Cinema Savant honoree Charles Burnett has two events this weekend in Iowa City. — Studio Harcourt Paris, via Wikimedia Commons

On Saturday, Nov. 2 at the Chauncey, FilmScene will award renowned director and screenwriter Charles Burnett with the prestigious Iowa City 2019 Cinema Savant award. The event will be followed by a reception honoring Burnett and his oeuvre. Tickets for the award ceremony and reception are $35-75, and include film screenings. Tickets to the ceremony only are $10. Moviegoers can catch Burnett’s film debut Killer of Sheep (1978) on Thursday, Oct. 31 at 6 p.m. in anticipation of Saturday’s event as well as a free Q&A with Burnett on Friday, Nov. 1 at 3:30 p.m. as part of the University of Iowa’s Department of Cinematic Arts Colloquium.

“We are so honored to welcome to Iowa City the internationally recognized and awarded artist Charles Burnett, one of America’s most important filmmakers,” said Paula Amad, DEO of the Department of Cinematic Arts. “As a key luminary of the ‘L.A. Rebellion’ group of filmmakers who pioneered a wave of African-American cinema out of the activist and artistic context of the ’60s and ’70s, Burnett shines for his ability to combine the political with the poetic in subtle and moving cinematic explorations of the social complexity of black everyday life. His films have radically expanded cinema to include the rich tapestry of the black American experience and they are a must-see for all students and lovers of cinema.”

Burnett established himself as a filmmaker, screenwriter and editor during his time at UCLA School of Film in the early 1970s; his presence at UCLA was concurrent with the rise of black independent cinema (otherwise known as the L.A. Rebellion) including filmmakers like Julie Dash and Yolande du Luart (with whom Burnett collaborated on her documentary Angela Davis: Portrait of a Revolutionary (1972)). During his time at UCLA, Burnett shot his auspicious debut Killer of Sheep (1978), a heartbreaking portrait of a working-class family in Los Angeles reminiscent of episodic Italian neorealist films like Bicycle Thieves (1948) and Umberto D. (1952).

The film, shot in black and white, follows protagonist Stan, who works at a slaughterhouse. At home, Stan is listless, unresponsive to the plain and pleading advances of his attentive wife or to the ever-watchful eyes of his two young children. Dinah Washington’s song “This Bitter Earth” recurs throughout the film, tinging the storyline and characters with a muted melancholy. While family may remain steadfastly committed, the question of “what good am I?” simmers on the film’s narrative surface.

Burnett quickly established himself as an adroit director whose work evades categorization: His films range from the moving, historical drama Nightjohn (1996) to the slow-burn magical realism of To Sleep with Anger (1990) to his most recent film, the documentary Power to Heal: Medicare and the Civil Rights Revolution (2018).

“[It] had a profound impact on me,” said Christopher Harris, head of film and video production in the Department of Cinematic Arts at UI, reflecting on To Sleep with Anger. “Burnett’s film really showed me something about his individual voice as a filmmaker within a black folk tradition … but he’s not bound by it, he makes it his. He does with it what he wants.”

When it comes to genre, Burnett has tried it all. As Ed Guerrero states in his book Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film, directors like Burnett “challeng[ed] Hollywood’s hegemony over the black image.” His films give primacy to the quotidian lives of African-American families, focusing with candor and care on family bonds, ritual, superstition and the unquenchable curiosity of children.

At 75, Burnett shows no signs of slowing down; his myriad talents and successes pepper decades of accolades and critical acclaim. Just two years ago, in 2017, Burnett was awarded the Governor’s Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, adding to previous accolades such as MacArthur Fellowship in 1988 and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts.


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Burnett’s “singular voice really captivated me,” Harris said. “[He] gave me a vision and a hope for a new black cinema that would go beyond commercial, strident, sensational films rooted in merely crime and poverty. His films provide humanity — his is a singular voice and a vision that I still don’t think we’ve seen the equal of today.”

It’s been quite a fall for Iowa City. FilmScene’s Chauncey theater opened less than two months ago; many enjoyed the annual Alloy Orchestra event at the Englert Theatre this past weekend; and now cinephiles are a-flurry with Burnett’s anticipated arrival. FilmScene’s programmer Rebecca Fons encapsulated the excitement, noting, “Charles is a pioneer, a living legend and a truly generous artist, whose work has influenced so many filmmakers and impacted so many film lovers. To have the opportunity to sit in a cinema with him and hear his stories and consider his career is our absolute pleasure.”

Acclaimed Saving Brinton (2017) director and FilmScene board member Tommy Haines added, “Iconic filmmaker Charles Burnett coming to town this week is the perfect way to celebrate the amazing year FilmScene and the entire arts community of Iowa City has had. Visits from the likes of Terry Gilliam, Jim Jarmusch, Woody Harrelson and now Charles Burnett allow Iowa citizens a chance to have dialogue with great filmmakers while building an arts community that hopefully other artists will want to visit as well.”

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