Cinema and Media Studies Charles Burnett
Janet K. Cutler
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0117


Acclaimed by critics and scholars but virtually unknown to the general public, Charles Burnett is an independent black filmmaker whose Killer of Sheep (1977) and To Sleep with Anger (1990) are designated “national treasures” by the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. Celebrated for their nuanced depictions of black family life, Burnett’s works stand as alternatives to commercial cinema’s representations of black experience, especially the sensationalized images that drive popular Blaxploitation films. Burnett began making socially engaged cinema in the 1970s while a graduate student at UCLA. He and his fellow students—Larry Clark, Haile Gerima, Billy Woodberry, Alile Sharon Larkin, Julie Dash and others—screened documentaries and narrative films from Europe, Latin America, and Africa, and they participated in study groups that charted alternatives to mainstream cinema. Burnett was also profoundly influenced by his teacher/mentor Basil Wright, a deeply humanistic British documentarian. In the shadow of Hollywood, Burnett and his peers, despite diverse sensibilities, worked together on projects that featured keenly observed views of urban black experience. His own student films revealed that low-budget productions could also be formally elegant. They could present complex portraits of the working poor and capture the rhythms of black urban life. After graduation, Burnett continued producing his own films, collaborating on the works of others, and directing movies, mini-series, and documentaries for ABC, PBS, Disney, and Showtime television. His career was acknowledged and supported by a coveted MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, as well as by awards from the Getty Foundation, Guggenheim Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, and National Endowment for the Arts. In 1997, the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival and the Film Society of Lincoln Center co-presented a survey of Burnett’s work; in 2011, The Museum of Modern Art showcased “The Power to Endure,” a several-week-long retrospective. Burnett’s youth as a resident of South Central Los Angeles, his coming of age at UCLA, and the explosive social/political climate of those formative years inform his work. Above all, Burnett remains intensely committed to strengthening the black community by producing films that depict and thus engender self-respect and decency.


Biographies of Charles Burnett often appear in reference works devoted to African American or American independent filmmakers. Such sources as Current Biography, Contemporary Black Biography, Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History, and International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers provide profiles of Burnett’s personal life and career. Charles Burnett, Donalson 2003, Edelman 2000, Golus 1998, and Griffin 2006, are for the most part straightforward and descriptive rather than analytical. Accessible to high school and undergraduate students, they typically cite Burnett’s Southern roots, his family’s move to South Central Los Angeles, and his subsequent education at UCLA. Burnett’s achievements—his celebrated films and his prestigious grants and fellowships—are also noted.

  • “Charles Burnett.” Current Biography 56.9 (September 1995).

    This account of Burnett’s life includes his family background, education, career, and accomplishments. Discussions of his filmmaking aspirations and descriptions of his films are accompanied by quotes from a wide selection of film reviews and interview material.

  • Donalson, Melvin Burke. “Keeping It Real (reel): Black Dramatic Visions.” In Black Directors in Hollywood. By Melvin Burke Donalson, 124–129. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003.

    A summary of Burnett’s career and his two commercial ventures: To Sleep with Anger and The Glass Shield. Donalson focuses on the political, social, and cultural aspects of Burnett’s work, as well as his reluctance to adopt a cinematic style that would be easily accessible to a general movie-going public.

  • Edelman, Rob. “Burnett, Charles.” In International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. 4th ed. Vol. 2. Edited by Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast, 142–143. Detroit: St. James, 2000.

    A brief summary of the filmmaker’s career, including awards, filmography, and publications by and about him. Includes analyses of To Sleep with Anger and The Glass Shield.

  • Golus, Carrie. “Burnett, Charles.” In Contemporary Black Biography. Vol. 16. Edited by Shirelle Phelps, 22–25. Detroit: Gale, 1998.

    A cursory overview of Burnett’s life, career, awards, Southern influences, and desire to reach black audiences. Quoted material is drawn primarily from newspaper articles. Reprinted in Volume 68, July 2013, pp. 31–34.

  • Griffin, Farah Jasmine. “Burnett, Charles.” In Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. 2d ed. Vol. 1. Edited by Colin A. Palmer, 362–363. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2006.

    A condensed biography, with information on Burnett’s film and television work, including its focus on urban black family relationships.

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