Cinetracts Q&A: Charles Burnett

David Filipi, Director, Film/Video

Oct 01, 2020

Director Charles Burnett receiving an honorary Oscar in 2017

Charles Burnett's contribution to Cinetracts '20 is inspired by a real-life event and follows a minister who has just returned to Los Angeles after witnessing an execution in Texas. The program, which makes its world premiere Thursday, October 8 at 7 PM, presents two-minute shorts about the current moment by filmmakers from around the world. This interview was recorded via Zoom on September 19, 2020. An excerpt of the video is followed by the complete Q&A.

We invited you to participate in the project in April or May of 2019 and it seems so long ago now. Can you remember what went through your mind when you received the invitation, especially what you thought of the parameters and rules we put in place?

I was excited to do a short film. The challenge was finding something I could do within two minutes. There are a lot of topics out there to choose from but the feeling that I would have time to say all that you want to say, or for a person to get a sense of the story in two minutes, was the main problem for me. 

I definitely want to ask you about that, because, in a way, I think you picked the hardest approach to this in attempting a narrative. When we started this, we thought 2020 was likely to be a very politically charged year; there was going to be a presidential election in the US, though we invited people from all over the world to participate. And, of course, we had no idea what was coming down the road in 2020. As an artist and a filmmaker, what has this year been like for you with COVID and the summer of great social unrest?

Well, I think this time is stressful for everybody. So much is being pushed back, sort of reevaluated. All of the civil rights and the progress we made seems to be taking a step backward. With Black Lives Matters and everything, it seems clear that Black people are being targeted and threatened all the time. I remember I used to tell my kids—they’re grown now—how to behave when a policeman stopped them. Before you tell them about their education, their ABCs or George Washington, you start with this at a very early age. You try to tell them you can't do this, and if a policeman stops them you have to do this and that. It was OK with the boys. One of the issues of having boys is that you know they are always targeted, but now it applies to women, young girls, you know? You feel as though you've done everything but you're still waiting for a phone call about your child. It's always a concern. 

I grew up in South Central. 77 Police Station was a notorious police station that would harass young people, young Black people and Hispanics. They would carry out their sense of justice. A lot of kids who were arrested would come back all beat up and bruised, enough to go to the hospital. The police would always explain that these bruises and fractures happened when he fell down the stairs. 77 Police Station is only on one level, you know? There are about three steps leading to the front door. If you visited, you'd wonder what steps they were talking about. But there was no questioning the police. If the police said he fell down the stairs, he fell down the stairs. If the police said they found a gun on a guy and that was what caused him to be shot, that was it. No one questioned anything except for the parents. 

Society as a whole had this image of Black youth as confronting the police, the police had to protect themselves… but in the community we knew differently. We saw these things happening. It wasn't until the Black Panthers started recording the police that we started to get a different view of what was taking place. Now, it's just open season. Every week you hear about a shooting or violent police reactions to people just trying to live and walk down the street, and you see it recorded on camera. This has been a strange year, and I know a lot of my friends are worried stiff. If I leave the house and forget my wallet and driver's license, I'm tense for the rest of the day. Either I risk going where I'm going, and hoping that I won't need my wallet, but then I'm stressed out so I always feel like I need to come back and get my wallet and license and be prepared, and that's not a free society. You don't feel like you are a part of this greater humanity. You have to worry about people framing you. At one point, there used to be a lynching every week in America. There used to be this sign, "A Person was Lynched Today." 

What's frustrating is that if you say "Black Lives Matter," it doesn't mean that no one else's life matters. This is our concern. This behavior by the police and the authorities has been going on since God knows when, since slavery and Reconstruction and Jim Crow laws. This has always been a part of our existence, this terroristic attitude by the establishment towards us to keep us in check. All we're asking is that you listen, listen to these parents who have suffered the death of their kid, but it seems like it's getting worse. 

I still can't believe—back to the Rodney King beating—that it was on camera. It was one of the first times where, there it is, it's documented, it's irrefutable evidence, everyone has seen it, and everyone still gets off. Fast forward, around 30 years later, and now it's just a regular occurrence for something to be caught on camera, and it doesn't matter. 

It's the new norm. And the response is "he had a record" or "he had been in jail" or whatever. They can even come up with witnesses saying, "no, he wasn't even there" like with the Central Park Five where Trump was saying they should in jail or executed, even when the guy confessed and said "these guys weren't involved" it wasn't accepted. Trump just refused to believe it. No, no, no...they did it. I don't believe him. There was a guy confessing that he did it and that the others had nothing to do with it. No, no...they had something to do with it, they were rowdy and all that kind of stuff. The news will talk about their backgrounds, always trying to find an excuse or justification for this violence. There's no empathy. These are human beings. For us to arrive at this point where we don't consider human life, no matter what color it is...

All of my friends are talking about leaving this country, trying to find another place, but Trump has made us not welcome anyplace. "How about Canada?" "No, we can't go there."

It's stressful, then to try to work on this film when you're so busy being stressed out by what's going on politically in this country and the madness. 

That's part of what I wanted to ask you. We're working with 20 different filmmakers and we've had people who had one idea for a film and then COVID happened and they weren't able to travel to make the film they had in mind or people not being able to think creatively with their minds occupied by the protests, or who simply haven't been able to focus their energy that way. It's affected everyone in different ways. That leads me to my question. Your film certainly relates to what you have been talking about. It's called The Law of Parties. When did you come up with the idea?

You asked me to do a two minute film, and I had been following this case that took place in Texas about this Black guy who was sentenced and was going to be executed for a crime that he didn't personally do but he was with the person who committed the crime, and he didn't know the person was going to do it. He was driving a car and it was a guy he had just met at a party and he was giving him a ride to the store and there was a traffic bottleneck and there was a couple in front of them in another car sort of holding up traffic. So the guy sitting next to him got out of the car and went to confront this couple—it was a white couple—in front of them. And, irrationally, he shot this couple. They arrested this guy and the driver, but they turned him loose at the time. He was free for a moment, but then they arrested him and charged him with the same crime even though, physically, he didn't pull a gun on anyone or anything like that, but he was with the guy who did. But in Texas, it's called "the law of parties,” where if you're with someone who commits a crime they find you equally as guilty even if you didn't even know what was going on.

They sentenced this guy to die along with the person who committed the crime. It seemed so unfair and the whole world was against it. There were petitions from all these different countries protesting this execution. I was following the case and thinking that if they execute this guy, that's it, I'm leaving. They had no mercy, and his daughter—she was a young girl, maybe 12 or 13—was very articulate. We have these images of Black people not being well spoken but these people had a lot of profound insight and spoke really well, particularly about their kid. They interviewed the man who was going to be executed and he was minutes away from being executed, he had just got his death warrant and the time he was going to die, because the judge was playing this cat and mouse game. Then this whole protest came about and the judge said he would think it over, and so they did. But he was taking his time in doing it, minutes before they will execute this guy, saying don't worry, you know. And then, finally, they gave him a stay of execution. I thought that was so cruel to do to a person. A person who had nothing to do with it; you know you can only be so responsible for a person who's irrational and then to have him pay for his life… It's not a good system. 

It's like invented cruelty, how can we be cruel in different ways that we haven't thought of before. 

Especially these cases with guys who are put on death row and spend 20 years in prison and they find out in the end these people were innocent and the prosecution knew that they were innocent. In fact, when I did The Glass Shield (1994) it was based on a number of these cases. One particular one in Florida where a person was killed with a .38 and they picked up a Black guy who happened to have a .38 and the prosecutor, who later became a federal judge, was interviewed by 60 Minutes who did all this research and they asked him, "You know this gun wasn't the same gun that killed these people?" And the prosecutor said he "couldn't help it if they guy had a dumb lawyer." He knew he wasn't the person and it wasn't the gun that was used. To me, that's murder. It's the height of dishonesty, he didn't care about the person and just used him to advance his career and he goes on to become a federal judge. The guy's lawyer did make mistakes, he was new. You read these cases where it's questionable if they did it or not, and if it's questionable why carry it to this extreme? It seems like they make up these stories, like the Central Park Five where the guy confesses and then the arresting officer refuses to accept the guy's confession. It's just cruel. Talking about a fair trial, you may have a lawyer, you may have all of these things that would constitute a trial, but is it fair when you know this guy didn't do it but you hide evidence. And there are lot of cases like that. 

So, that's the reason I was concerned about making this film, The Law of Parties

Part of the reason I mentioned you taking a difficult approach to this was that you were making a very short narrative where you have to introduce an idea, introduce your characters, and wrap it up in two minutes. I'm sure you can speak to the challenge of a two minute film. 

There is a newspaper article about the execution that gives some detail and some history, but it goes by fast. It's a moment I wish was a little longer just to explain a lot of things so it would be more powerful.

I'm not sure what you think is not being represented but it's amazing that in two minutes you're introduced to three characters, if you include the person who was executed, and you know he was convicted under the law of parties. We meet the reverend and we have a sense of what his life might be like and that he is doing things like this on a somewhat regular basis. And then we meet the executed man's daughter. We have, not necessarily the point of view of all three people, but in a very economical way you give us a bit of backstory for all three people in just two minutes. 

I tried to give a bit of the tragedy. The guy, in spite of his predicament, is more human than the people who are executing him. When he's given his last meal, he says he just wants to give it to the homeless or working poor, things like that. There were moments in my film where I wanted to make the film larger to be able to tell more of a story about this and I thought I could do it in two minutes but some of the images at the end didn't quite hold up. His wife and his family didn't want to be there at the end, they were just too stressed out. So in the film, when the preacher comes with the returned letters this guy had written, he was the only one who had the courage to go to the execution.

A friend of mine was at an execution. It was a big deal with arguments back and forth about whether this person should be executed. It was here in Los Angeles. He did the crime but he had changed his life and became a model person and they had this notion that all of these people would write in to support him. Arnold Schwarzenegger was the Governor then. He knew he wasn't going to give him a stay of execution, but he didn't tell anyone, except for one person. So he kept the city and state uninformed about what his plans were so everyone had this hope, a false hope. And finally he said he wasn't going to stay the execution because he wanted to be thought of as hard on crime. So they executed him. And a guy I was working with on another film was at the execution because he had been on a speaking tour trying for a stay of execution, so he was invited by the [condemned man] to be present. It took him a whole year to get over the experience. Executions, for me, have become a very personal thing. 

To bring it back full circle to what you were talking about at the beginning, now executions are happening in the street without a jury or anything. 

And the police do it in such a vicious way...sitting on somebody's neck and them saying they can't breathe. It's just too much. 

And for people reading this in the future, we’re recording the interview the day after Ruth Bader Ginsburg died and it seems like as low as people have been the past few months, there is another new low today. 

It's been quite a year. I got over Bush and that took a while, that administration was another whole stressful experience, and this one has been doubly more intense. With Bush, there was a sense of him governing and it wasn't like he told a lie every day. But this has been a whole new ballgame.  

You had a sense there was governance. For instance, if COVID happened back then you have a sense the CDC would have stepped in, there would have been an organized plan, and a sense that someone was addressing it, and now...

...You're supposed to inject yourself with soap suds or mouthwash or whatever it is and you'll be alright. To have people believe that, that's the sad part about it. 

There was a moment in your film that had an extra resonance but I don't even know exactly what you meant in that moment. Could you expand on the scene when the preacher is coming back from the airport and he drives under an overpass and there are all of those homeless camps? A person can certainly read many different things into it. The film is about what it's about, but it's also expansive in a way. The preacher has a COVID mask on, for example.  What did you have in mind in that scene?

The homeless situation in Los Angeles is so profoundly unimaginable. When I was coming up, there wasn't anything like homeless people. There were hobos—that’s what they were called—but you had to go down to the railroad tracks downtown to see them with stereotypical things like a sack slung over their back, things like that, walking down the tracks. And it was usually white men that you saw, and there was sort of this romantic notion that they were free. I know it's crazy to think that but kids didn't think it was this horrible thing; they were free, they could travel. 

There are songs about it. 

Yeah. But now, we can't imagine all of these people living in the street, under bridges, in Westwood and in Beverly Hills. Kids and families. You didn't see that when I was coming up. The streets were clean. But now it's a part of who we are as Americans, who we are as Angelenos, it's accepted. What are these politicians doing? That didn't happen before. People could afford a house, even a wage person. But it just gets worse and worse. 

In the film, when the preacher is driving past the underpass you see how people are living. Not that the guy who was executed came from there, but from an environment where there are few alternatives. You get a little sense of his background that way. 

We're really grateful and honored that you agreed to participate in this so, thank you.

Well, thank you. A lot of the people I worked with on this film haven't done anything in a while and had worked in some of my other films so they were really pleased with this opportunity and I'm sure they would say "thank you,” too. 

Well, try to stay sane.

I can't promise anything. 

Image: Charles Burnett accepts an honorary Oscar during the 2017 Governors Awards; photo: Carolyn Schroeder

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