Director Charles Burnett turns hobby ambitions into an Oscar
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Charles Burnett expected filmmaking to be a hobby, a way for him to tell the stories of the people he knew growing up in south central Los Angeles.
They weren’t stories Hollywood told, Burnett said in a recent interview, and for most of his four decade filmmaking career, they’ve been stories that have eluded Academy Awards recognition. That changes on Saturday, when Burnett will receive an honorary Oscar that will recognize his honest portrayals of African-American lives in his feature films and documentaries.
It’s a surprising, but welcome, honor for Burnett, an independent filmmaker whose work has drawn praise for decades, but has never been nominated for an Academy Award. “It’s totally unexpected,” he said during a recent interview. “It came out of the blue.′
Burnett, 73, will receive his Oscar at Saturday’s ninth annual Governors Awards, a gala dinner attended by major stars and academy leaders. Fellow honorees include actor Donald Sutherland, director Agnes Varda and cinematographer Owen Roizman.
Burnett joked that family and friends have been calling him asking to attend the event, and he’ll feel a sense of relief once he’s delivered his speech. “I’m the worst speaker in the world, and that’s my biggest concern,” he said. “I’m stage struck, shell-shocked and everything else.”
Burnett’s first film, “Killer of Sheep,” starred his neighbors and friends from Watts and showed the realities of the lives of its residents and the impact poverty had on many of them.
“It was just a practical solution, to use non-actors,” he said. “I couldn’t afford any named people at the time.”
It was finished in 1978 and earned praise and recognition, but didn’t receive a commercial release until nearly three decades later. By that point Burnett had wrote and directed several other films focusing on the black experience, including “My Brother’s Wedding” and “To Sleep with Anger.”
Burnett said since his days in film school at the University of California, Los Angeles, he sought to tell stories Hollywood wasn’t showing filmgoers. In films about Los Angeles, Burnett said, “you never saw people of color with dignity, as real people.
“Most of us that got into film school wanted to treat people fairly and wanted to show what reality was and wanted to show people of color in a true fashion,” he said.
It was a writing professor at a community college Burnett that attended — in large part to avoid being drafted into military service in Vietnam — who Burnett said showed him the value of reading and writing and set him on his course to becoming a filmmaker. Other professors introduced him to cinema and gave him the equipment, and the knowhow, to make deeply personal films.
“I never intended to make money off of it, just to be real,” he said.
He has since written and directed films in multiple genres, from shorts to features and documentaries. He is currently working on a documentary called “The Power to Heal” about segregation’s impact on health care. Burnett, who was born in Mississippi, called segregated health care “one of the worst manifestations” of racism, and a story that not many people know about or understand.
It’s a story that could be told in a multi-part series, he said, but he’s been tasked to do it in 56 minutes.
As for earning an Oscar for his achievements, Burnett said the experience so far is so surreal, like he’s in a dream.
“You can’t wait to have this thing over with to be sure that it’s is real, that you aren’t still dreaming,” he said.
Anthony McCartney can be reached at http://twitter.com/mccartneyAP.