Many see Charles Burnett as a trailblazer. He's not among them. If you don't know his name or his work, it might be because he's slow to celebrate his own pioneering accomplishments as an independent filmmaker. "I don't see myself as a pioneer," says Mr. Burnett, who will attend the USA Film Festival tonight at 7 p.m. for the screening of his new film, The Annihilation of Fish. "I'm just always trying to make a film, trying to get to the next film, staying ahead of the bill collector."
And ahead of his time. Mr. Burnett was creating nuanced, penetrating portraits of African-American life before Spike Lee hit film school. His 1977 film Killer of Sheep told the story of a slaughterhouse worker battling personal demons and societal racism. It's now among the "National Treasures" preserved by the U.S. Library of Congress. His benchmark film remains To Sleep With Anger (1990), featuring Danny Glover as a Southern trickster who raises havoc among old friends in Los Angeles. The film demonstrates Mr. Burnett's canny knowledge of black folklore and cultural shifts, reflecting his own experiences as a Vicksburg, Miss., native who moved to South Central Los Angeles as a child. His screenplay won the National Society of Film Critics award; Mr. Glover's performance is still considered his best. So why does he remain on the filmmaking periphery, respected by artists and cinephiles but a mystery to the average moviegoer?
"He doesn't do a lot of the flash and dazzle," says Dallas native Carolyn Schroeder, who coproduced Mr. Burnett's underrated 1995 police drama The Glass Shield and has been a friend for 10 years. "Because he doesn't toot his own horn, and it doesn't even cross his mind to do so, he doesn't garner the attention that goes to those who are louder and flashier."
But it's not just Mr. Burnett's disdain for self-promotion that keeps him in the shadows. It's also his aggressively noncommercial style and mature thematic concerns, his insistence on telling adult stories at a time when young, disposable income can make or break a movie during its opening weekend. He refuses to take a dive for the big money or pander for a payday. He keeps it personal and intelligent, a combo that rarely goes over big at the box office or makes potential financiers swoon.
In short, he makes films that require persistent fund raising and healthy attention spans, in an era when the latter are getting shorter by the day.
"People used to appreciate films with slower paces," Mr. Burnett says. "Now everyone looks at MTV as the culprit for creating fast pacing and a different aesthetic feel for film. The audience is just so different now. It's not a question of getting good stories out there. It's more about shock value and episodic, unconnected material."
The Annihilation of Fish may be a tough sell even by Mr. Burnett's standards. A story of unlikely love between a Jamaican immigrant named Fish (James Earl Jones) who literally wrestles with a demon and an eccentric spinster (Lynn Redgrave) hopelessly in love with the long-deceased opera composer Giacomo Puccini, the film, not among Mr. Burnett's best, moves slowly and focuses on a romance between two off-center characters in their 60s. It won't make the cover of Entertainment Weekly anytime soon.
Though Mr. Burnett didn't write the script - Jamaican native Anthony Winkler did - it features many of his favorite themes. Mr. Burnett's films emphasize our common humanity and its ability to transcend differences. They translate folklore into modern terms, and they bring the spirit world to life: Fish's demon, Hank, can be seen as a cousin of To Sleep With Anger's mischievous Harry.
But Mr. Burnett isn't just a good humanist. He's a great visual storyteller, "a poet with a camera," as Ms. Schroeder says. He translates his knowledge of human nature into stark compositions, generating emotions that sneak up and then pounce.
The Glass Shield, despite what might be considered a controversial subject, is perhaps the closest he has to come to a Hollywood movie. It also features some of his best filmmaking. The story of the first black policeman at a notoriously racist Los Angeles precinct (Michael Boatman), it creates moments of tension and pure panic that are sudden and palpable enough to give you a good shake. But they're always linked to the people at the heart of the story, and they never stick out for the sake of easy shock or random titillation.
"He's so true to himself," says Ms. Schroeder. "It wouldn't be within the realm of possibility for him to change his style or his commentary. It's so close to who he is." And who is he? A soft-spoken, highly intelligent man who decided he was bored studying electronics and instead went to UCLA film school in the '60s, well before that was the hip thing to do. A transplanted Southerner who takes care not to forget his roots. An independent filmmaker who has been at it for three decades.
Just don't call him a pioneer.
"You just hope that the next one will be better than the last," he says. "There's always the next film that will hopefully say what you want it to say."
James Earl Jones plays a Jamaican immigrant in love with Lynn Redgrave's eccentric spinster in Charles Burnett's The Annihilation of Fish.