Interview: Charles Burnett, Billy Woodberry and The LA Rebellion

May 22 2017

Charles Burnett and Billy Woodbury Charles Burnett and Billy Woodberry

In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s just after the Watts Riots in Los Angles and the Civil Rights Movement, a group of Black filmmakers entered school at UCLA. In response to the Blaxploitation films that were saturated in Hollywood, over the course of the next twenty years, these students created a new type of cinema in response to the stereotypes about Black people that were being upheld in Hollywood’s studio system. They worked together as a collective supporting one another and creating stories that had a sense of Black Pride and dignity.

Two of these students were Charles Burnett whose films “Killer of Sheep,” and “To Sleep With Anger” have forever changed the cinema landscape and Billy Woodberry whose film, “Bless Their Little Hearts” continues to be culturally and historically relevant. Both “Bless Their Little Hearts” and “Killer of Sheep” have been preserved by the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.

Recently, at an apartment in Harlem, I sat down to speak with both Mr. Burnett and Mr. Woodberry about their iconic films, the period of the LA Rebellion and the state of cinema today.

Aramide Tinubu: Thank you so much for speaking with me and congratulations to the both of you of the 40th anniversary of “Killer of Sheep” and the digital restoration of “Bless Their Little Hearts.”

Charles Burnett: Thank you.

Billy Woodberry: No problem.

AT: “Killer Of Sheep” and “Bless Their Little Hearts” are part of the LA Rebellion which comes right after the Blaxploitation era in Hollywood. What inspired you both to make your films during this time and to go the independent route?

CB: I was in school just as Blaxploitation began to emerge. We got into film right after the Civil Rights Movement, so that was our motivation. It was to correct all of those strange narratives in Hollywood about our reality. I was at UCLA at the time, and when more Black students came into the department, it opened this dialogue, and we started trying to develop what Black film was a group. Most of us didn’t make our films through grants or anything like that because UCLA gave us all of the equipment. You just had to buy your own film and pay for the processing, and the rest was pretty much your own labor. It wasn’t this relationship between funder and director that you have now where they want to change things. So, we had total freedom in that regard, and now it’s a bit different. We were just trying to tell our stories, and we didn’t have any idea, at least I didn’t about how to market or distribute the films. I just felt that it would happen and that we would get the films out, but I never thought that I would male a living off of it. It was just something you did. I thought I would be working another job while doing this on the side. When other students of color came in, there was a collective idea of what we should be doing. But, it wasn’t until some period later that the idea of the LA Rebellion came about because we were reacting against the Hollywood tradition about Black stories.

BW: LA Rebellion was film scholar Clyde Taylor’s concept. He labeled it during the early ‘80s and it sort of just stuck. It took like twenty more years for it to become current.

AT: I know that you both worked together on “Bless Their Little Hearts,” how did that come about?

BW: It probably started because I was trying to meet Charles and get to know him and I had made a short movie.

AT: “The Pocketbook”?

BW: Yes, and the last scene in the movie, the shooting was not good, so he proposed that we should do it again, so we did that, and that was my first chance to really work with him. After that, we began to spend a lot of time talking, looking at movies, talking about books and driving around looking for locations and things like that. So, when it was time for me to propose my thesis project, I was looking around and trying to adapt books and things like that but then Charles told me he had the story, and that’s how it happened. He knew the things I claimed to be interested in so he challenged me; he wanted to see if I could make these things meaningful and make sense. We just ended up putting it together, but he worked with a lot of people. Usually what would happen is that we worked on each other's films, that’s how we learned. That’s how we gained trust.

AT: That makes sense.

BW: When we first started “Bless Their Little Hearts” we had a lot of crew. But eventually they had to go make their own films, and they had to do other things, but we had a substantial crew to start with.

CB: That’s the only way you can make films by depending on other people.

BW: I’m gonna expose [Charles], he didn’t want to ask them. He just didn’t; he felt like it would be challenging. So he did a lot of it by himself. (Laughing)

CB: At UCLA you had to get a few people from the department, so that was an ongoing thing. But, it was a good time. I’m certainly glad we came along at that time versus now.

AT: In that particular time period that is Los Angeles in the late ‘70s early ‘80s, you’re sitting between two riots, ’65 and ’92. In “Killer of Sheep” specifically, you really see this vast wasteland, these kids playing in abandoned lots. So what did that time period feel like?

CB: I was there when the riots of ’65 happened, it was strange because if you were observant, you knew there was going to be an explosion, there was going to be some resistance of people who were fed up with the repressive nature of what was gong on. The cops would drive around, and people would split like roaches when you turn a light on. But, I remember this kind of euphoric feeling when a policeman was killed in a bank robbery on Manchester and Broadway, and everyone was like “Whoa!” It sounds weird and insensitive, but everyone had this sense of relief. Then there was retaliation. So you had the Civil Rights Movement, which said, “You can take control of your life.” Then, when the riots happened, it was something that was overdue. At the time, there wasn’t the drug problem and the gangs.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-nXw-8MXhVE

AT: Yes, this is pre-crack cocaine.

CB: Yes, we had defined areas that had gangs, but they sort of had a sense of proportion. If you could fight, you could survive and somehow or another. If you could box pretty good, you had a reputation and people didn’t bother you. It wasn’t like anything that has gone down post drugs. So then, kids could play in the street. It wasn’t so much a wasteland as it was a lot of undeveloped areas that young kids could explore. So for me, it was a great time, police were still brutal and things like that but it was a different time. Now it doesn’t matter what you do, if they feel like they want to kill someone, then that's it, so it was a different atmosphere.

AT: In both films, you explore Black masculinity and the family, where did these ideas come from? Was it a conscious response to the Moynihan Report or your own lives and what you had seen around you?

CB: Growing up in that area, those are the kind of people that you witness and identify with. There are people you admired because they had this idea of who they were; a dignity. No matter what happened, they fought to keep that. I’m from Mississippi, and LA was full of people from the South. One of the things that I was always aware of is how adults would sacrifice for kids. You invite an older person over for dinner or something they would be very concerned about the kids eating first. So I was always aware. That stuff grows on you and things like that you remember and come to appreciate later especially when you find a lot of absence of this type of conduct in people today. I don’t know if people still relate to it now.

AT: Everything happens in cycles I think.

CB: I hope so, I like to see people who are genuinely principled and real and think of people first, particularly kids.

AT: Certainly, I always remember that moment in “Bless Their Little Hearts” where Andais gives Charles that money so that he can give it to the kids for their church tithes.

BW: I was always aware of that kind of thing, and part of the attraction or the challenge was that this couple was trying to maintain their life and to raise their children together and to go through things together. I was trying to do that, and I know different aspects of that reality, so it seemed worthwhile to support them in that and to portray that. So we know the other claims that Black men don’t want to work, they don’t stay, So that was an easy thing to work against. It’s kind of an insistence on the possibility and commitment of the people who are trying to do that, and they do it together. One real value of this film is that it’s about them. It’s about the two of them, it’s about them and their children but what happens between them is really important. Sometimes, because she has the moral high ground and the vitality, it can seem like it’s mostly about her, but that’s OK. In fact, he was asked to underplay, to restrain and to find other ways to respond. She is powerful, but at the same time she restrains, and she’s reasonable. She tries to understand. That’s probably a good thing for anyone in a love relationship. That’s what a book or a movie can do, it gives you a mediated or once removed thing to think about something you must feel. So you can use it for that.

AT: Right after the LA Rebellion, you have Spike Lee, The Hughes Brothers, John Singleton and the ‘90s resurgence of Black film. What was it like to witness as you were working independently while these studio films were bursting through?

BW: I preferred “To Sleep With Anger,” I preferred what Haile Gerima was doing with “Sankofa.” I was interested and happy for those young people because they were trying to peruse [film] another way. They had a moment, they had an opening that hadn’t existed before, and they were able to have a career. When “She’s Gotta Have It” came out in LA we were on the board of the Independent Feature Project West in Los Angeles, so we were aware of what was happening. These young people were making popular urban films of their time, “New Jack City,” and those actors that were developing. It was somewhere between what had gone before and something new that was emerging. There were other people besides Spike, Charles Lane had made, “A Place and Time” and then he made “Sidewalk Stories.” I thought he was brilliant and had a lot of possibility. There was Robert Garner and the people at the Black Filmmakers Foundation, and then there was Third World Cinema. We also knew St. Clair Bourne and some of the documentary filmmakers. So we were aware of all of these people, and we appreciated them.

CB: Melvin Van Peebles “Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song” sort of stood out at the time because his hero overcame everything and beat the system and the man and that really moved a lot of people and that was well before Spike.

AT: 1971 I believe.

CB: There was a lot of talk at the time among film students, and it spawned a lot of conversations also that was a major turning point. But, we were very lucky at the time, a lot of African films were also brought in. But when Spike’s films did show, I believe it was “School Daze” students from all parts of campus came in droves. Spike was really popular at that time, and I suppose a lot of people got into film because of him. There weren’t any models...Sidney Poitier had made a film.

AT: Oh yes, “Buck and the Preacher,” but that was within the studio system.

CB: The only person that really existed outside of that was Ossie Davis. I think it was based on an African Revolution, “Countdown at Kusini” and he didn’t finish it, but it was known that he had started it; then Gordon Parks and Gordon Parks’ son. So there was this idea that people on the East Coast were a bit more sophisticated when it came to financing films, and it seemed to me that they were long in the grass in doing things that like. But, we seemed to do our own thing and work together. There were a lot of really good filmmakers like Kathleen Collins and all of these folks like that who I think went through the system with grants and things like that. So there were a lot of good things that were happening, and we were able to have conversations and talk, and we all seemed to be able to reach one another, system or not.

BW: Starting in the ‘70s some people started to have a place in the industry. People like Michael Schultz who made “Cooley High” and a couple of other films and that was after Melvin Van Peebles returned from France and went to Warner Bros. But, the actors and talent were starting to come to the West Coast. So even among the Blaxploitation films there are different levels, and you could be aware of them and even enjoy some of them but you weren’t necessarily trying to make them, or you weren’t pressured to make them. But, we had the privilege of being in school and having all kinds of discussions and reading all kinds of things and interacting with people who were obsessed with film in different ways.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bwvc0yqPuSM

AT: What do you both think of the state of cinema now?

CB: At this point, you do what you have to do in order to survive. If you’re doing your own thing you do have to worry about getting distribution deals and things like that so in many ways it comes at a price and you don’t make a lot of money.

BW: The access to the means of production is much more accessible. Also, it’s more portable and miniaturized. You will need some serious capital investment at some point, it’s not free, but there is a liberty in these new devices as well. That’s different, and that’s good. But at the same time to have the ability to distribute it and show it and to have people see it; it’s still complicated.

AT: Billy your documentary “And when I die, I won't stay dead” recently premièred is that correct?

BW: Yes, it’s a documentary about the poet Bob Kaufman.

AT: Charles are you working on anything also?

CB: Yes, it’s a documentary about integrating hospitals.

AT: Oh wow.

CB: It started in the South. It started right after [President Lyndon] Johnson implemented Medicare. The government was going to refuse hospitals money if they did not integrate. We finished filming, and we have a cut of it. So we’re in the last stages, but we are close to locking it. We’re trying to get it out there to the public because it’s one of those stories about the Civil Rights Movement that people don’t know about. They know about the marches and things like that. But, when you tell them from the ‘60s on back not just in the South but people didn’t get medical attention and service, and they died. So it’s one of the most evil things of racism when babies couldn’t get service, and they died. People who had life-threatening illnesses could have been saved. They would operate on you without giving you full anesthetic. I read “Medical Apartheid” by Harriet A. Washington. I couldn’t even read all of it; it was too hard to know what they did to Black people. They don’t talk about it but they should, and they would understand the distrust. The movement to integrate was started by doctor and dentists, but they don’t get the credit. The dentists brought lawsuits against the American Medical Association.

AT: I’m very excited to see it, it should be incredible.

CB: Right now it’s called “The Power To Heal, ” but it may change.

AT: Wonderful. Thank you both so much for speaking with me and congratulations again.

"Bless Their Little Hearts" & "Killer of Sheep" are currently playing at the IFC Center in New York City. Get your tickets here.


Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami

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