Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Samantha N. Sheppard reviews Charles Burnett: A Cinema of Symbolic Knowledge

James Naremore. Charles Burnett: A Cinema of Symbolic Knowledge. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2017. 250 pp.

Review by Samantha N. Sheppard

26 September 2018

In Charles Burnett: A Cinema of Symbolic Knowledge, James Naremore examines with great detail and critical insight the groundbreaking career and films of African-American writer, director, and cinematographer Charles Burnett. A prolific but still relatively unknown American auteur who received an honorary Oscar in 2017, Burnett is lauded in cinephile communities principally for his dramatic feature Killer of Sheep (1977), a poetic and neorealist meditation on black working-class life and family dynamics in 1970s Watts that was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the US National Film Registry. As Naremore explains, Burnett made Killer of Sheep as a student at UCLA during an unprecedented period of black filmmaking at the university that began in the late 1960s and lasted into the mid-1980s. A group retrospectively called the L.A. Rebellion by writer and film scholar Clyde Taylor featured Burnett alongside Haile Gerima, Julie Dash, Larry Clark, Billy Woodberry, Alile Sharon Larkin, Jamaa Fanaka, and others committed to reimagining black lives onscreen outside of Hollywood’s controlling images.

In their seminal edited collection L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema (2015), Allyson Nadia Field, Jan-Christopher Horak, and Jaqueline Najuma Stewart explain that “As with many artistic movements named by critics and historians, ‘L.A. Rebellion’ was not coined by members of this group, nor has it been used and embraced by all of them. Individually, the artists represent widely diverse origins, experiences, and points of view.” While the films they created during this period range in style, form, and themes, Field, Horak, and Stewart insist that “L.A. Rebellion filmmakers worked with a common purpose to create a new Black cinema characterized by innovative, meaningful reflection on past and present lives and the concerns of Black communities in the United States and across the African diaspora.”[1] As the first monograph on Burnett, the most well-known and influential filmmaker of the group, Naremore’s book provides a necessary and timely addition to L.A. Rebellion scholarship, and it includes, builds on, and pivots beyond this liminal movement to consider the range, scope, and objectives of Burnett’s career and its significance to American culture. To this end, Naremore focuses on the totality of Burnett’s career and emphasizes the filmmaker’s attention to and depiction of the physical and psychological struggles of black people onscreen. Naremore unpacks Burnett’s films individually to demonstrate how “his artistry, his ability to treat American racism with an angry intelligence but without hate, his sense of humor, his humane respect for his audience, his interest in the ordinary lives of people largely unrepresented in the media, and his commitment to providing symbolic knowledge all give his work enduring value” (p. 229).

An auteur study that deftly explores Burnett’s formal styles across media formats, modes, and genres, Charles Burnett provides not only coverage of Burnett’s biography, film career, artistic influences, and social criticism but also puts forth a critical framework that situates Burnett’s cinematic vision in terms of the filmmaker’s own critical creative processes. Naremore argues that Burnett’s films (ranging from student and art films to made-for-television movies and commercial features) “[offer] us a cinematic repository of moral narratives and symbolic knowledge that tries to hold communities together and enable them to endure” (p. 8). In this regard, Burnett’s “cinema of symbolic knowledge” evinces how “folk wisdom and knowledge are often communicated through the images and actions of stories, and his emphasis on knowledge, especially moral knowledge, is significant because Burnett is in many ways an educator” (p. 8). Naremore’s assessment is strikingly accurate, as Burnett’s pedagogical cinema uses black cultural traditions, music, and history to instruct audiences to see black people and communities within new paradigms. This method of analysis, for example, is what helps us understand how To Sleep with Anger (1990)—a dark comedy about a black family in Los Angeles dealing with a visiting “trickster” played by Danny Glover—“is a deceptively simple-looking film that takes on added meaning with repeated viewing and has an intriguing, unusually mixed tone” (p. 69). As the viewer parses out the real from the mythical, To Sleep with Anger draws on West African folklore to explore the history of the South and the black migration west, and to examine generational conflicts and family tensions.

Naremore makes the case that greater attention must be paid to Burnett’s work, in part because “the whole of his remarkable career has been devoted to the proposition that Black Lives Matter” (p. 1). Naremore’s sentiment acutely recognizes how Burnett’s films are dedicated to the measures of social, political, and economic concerns of black life in American society. Naremore painstakingly makes this case through close readings of Burnett’s films, describing, for example, family dramas about black working-class conditions and interpersonal conflicts in Killer of Sheep and My Brother’s Wedding (1983); narratives about police brutality and the justice system in The Glass Shield (1983); and dramas about plantation-era slavery figures with Nightjohn (1996) and Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (2003). With thoughtful and accessible prose that balances formal and textual analysis with production histories, Naremore convincingly demonstrates how Burnett’s films are attuned and attentive to the complexity of the black quotidian. From his use of nonprofessional actors, children, and the black community as focal points on screen, Burnett emphasizes the humanity and lives of a people through an interrogation of black interiority by way of formal choices, particularly music. “Burnett’s treatment of music,” Naremore explains, “differs from a typical Hollywood picture because he seldom mixes it with diegetic sound, thus giving it a degree of independence and allowing it to function as counterpoint or commentary” (p. 26). Burnett’s use of music as counterpoint and commentary in Killer of Sheep is perhaps the most obvious illustration of this point, specifically evidenced by the filmmaker’s use of Dinah Washington, Paul Robeson, Louis Armstrong, and Earth, Wind and Fire, among others, on the soundtrack to orchestrate meaning for the film. The fact that it took decades to secure the rights to the film’s music (which halted distribution of the film until 2007) underscores how integral the soundscape is to the work and how it heightens the piece’s impact on film culture. 

Structurally, Naremore’s book provides a clear and straightforward examination of Burnett’s biography and career through a mostly chronological analysis of his films, ranging from his student films through Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation (2007). Each chapter is dedicated to a film in Burnett’s oeuvre, and Naremore provides both textual and contextual analyses of each example. There is a simplicity—without a sacrifice of rigor—in Naremore’s focus on the production history, content, and significance of each of Burnett’s films (individually and collectively). The chapters can easily operate as both references and resources for studying Burnett’s work and teaching his films. Thoroughly drawing out the stylistic and political features of each film, Naremore’s detailed plot analyses provide a vivid account and summary of Burnett’s work, including lesser-known and hard-to-access titles such as The Annihilation of Fish (1999), which—despite starring James Earl Jones and Lynn Redgrave—was never distributed and can be viewed only in university archives or at special screenings. Additionally, Naremore’s attention to Burnett’s screenwriting work on Bless Their Little Hearts (1984) and Man in a Basket (2003) and his inclusion of a comprehensive filmography richly rounds out this study. Naremore’s exhaustive and yet engaging reading of Burnett’s films rightfully casts Burnett and his work—at last—into the spotlight.


[1] L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema, ed. Allyson Nadia Field, Jan-Christopher Horak, and Jacqueline Najuma Stewart (Berkeley, 2015), p. 2.