Saturday, February 16, 2008


Nightjohn (1996) is about a runaway slave who returns to the plantations to teach his fellow slaves how to read. The film was directed by Charles Burnett, who struggled as an independent during the '70s and '80s when he only made two features, Killer of Sheep (1977) and My Brother's Wedding (1983), neither of which were properly distributed before 2007. His third, To Sleep With Anger (1990), fared slightly better on first release but still isn't available on DVD. During the '90s, his productivity increased dramatically, though he continued to struggle within the mainstream. During this period, he made America Becoming (1991), a documentary about immigration; The Glass Shield (1994), a studio feature with Ice Cube and Elliot Gould that was recut by its distributor, Miramax, who barely released their version; When it Rains (1995), a fifteen-minute short for French TV that Jonathan Rosenbaum considers the greatest of all Burnett's films; Nightjohn; The Final Insult (1997), an hour-long video about Los Angeles' homeless; The Wedding (1998), a TV miniseries produced by Oprah Winfrey and starring Halle Berry; Dr. Endesha Ida Mae Holland (1998), a documentary short about the civil rights activist; The Annihilation of Fish (1999), an independent feature starring James Earl Jones and Lynn Redgrave that wasn't distributed; and Selma, Lord, Selma (1999), a TV movie about Alabama during the civil rights movement (1). One is almost tempted to read Nightjohn as an autobiographical statement about Burnett's struggle for independence as a filmmaker.

In 2007, after Killer of Sheep and the director's cut of My Brother's Wedding received a limited commercial release, both films, as well as the longer version My Bother's Wedding and several shorts (including When it Rains), were released on a two-disc DVD set. As welcome as this belated recognition is, especially as some one who's wanted to see these films for years, the continued neglect of Burnett's more commercial work confirms what Rosenbaum said in his review of Nightjohn, reprinted in his book "Essential Cinema": that Burnett's (limited) success within the system has only added to his anonymity. The film was made for the Disney Channel, which means it reached a wider audience than any Burnett film had up to that point, though it's unlikely the original audience was aware of who directed the film. I was only able to see it because my local library had a VHS copy. At the same time, there seems to be little or no interest in distributing new Burnett films like Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (2003) or Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation (2007). I can't imagine why this should be the case when Nightjohn prooves that Burnett can "deliver the goods" and still make something fascinating and personal at the same time.

Based on the novel by Gary Paulsen, which I haven't read, Nightjohn is narrated by Sarny/Allison Jones, who begins by telling us that this is a story about Nightjohn/Carl Lumbly, and then contradicts herself by adding that it's also about her, "since I'm in it and some of it happened to me." In fact, because Sarny and the film view Nightjohn as a fully formed mythic hero, he registers more as a static supporting player rather than a protagonist. In her closing narration, after Nightjohn is sold to another plantation, Sarny says she never found out what happened to Nightjohn afterwards, though she met a number of people who knew him and "even more that knew some one who knew him," adding to his mythic aura. (I haven't seen Selma, Lord, Selma, but the story of a 12-year-old girl/Jurnee Smollett who's inspired by a speech by Martin Luther King sounds a lot like Nightjohn.) Arguably as important and more interesting is the plantation owner, Clel Waller/Beau Bridges, who isn't unambiguously evil although it's not big jump; after Sarny is born in the opening sequence, he promises her mother/Robin Michelle McClamb not to sell the girl, even though girls are worth less as slaves ("Thought you said it would be a boy" is his first line in the script), and keeping his word, he sells the mother instead.

Words--promises, passes, letters--are what Nightjohn is all about. The two main subplots both involve forbidden love affairs in which words play a crucial role. When Sarny starts working in the house, Clel's wife, Callie/Kathleen York (who the film has already established as a romantic and a dreamer with a fondness for books), has her deliver letters to a man/Tom Nowicky living nearby, each of whom pays Sarny a penny for her secrecy. "One penny at a time, they were making me a rich woman." The other involves a young slave, Outlaw/Gabriel Casseus, who's in love with a young woman on another plantation; Clel forbids a marriage since law states that, in such an event, Outlaw would marry into the other plantation. Finally, the two lovers escape using forged passes, written by Nightjohn and Sorny, to buy them some time before anyone knows they're gone.

The source of Nightjohn, and later Sarny's strength is in their ability to read. The most pointed line of dialogue is spoken by Nightjohn to Old Man/Bill Cobbs, a slave who lost a finger for learning to read, a fate that later befalls Nightjohn as well. "Words are freedom, Old Man. 'Cause that's all slavery is made of: words. Laws, deeds, passes: all they are is words. White folks got all the words and they mean to keep them. You get some words for yourself and you be free." At the beginning of the film, Sarny is too shy to speak a word, but by the end, she's stolen enough of them from Clel--namely, the figures from a ledger kept by Clel with the dollar values of each slave--to render him powerless, and without glossing over the physical pain of Nightjohn losing his index finger, the film suggests that it's essentially a symbolic guesture, since Nightjohn's value as a slave means Clel would never do any thing to limit his productivity, much less kill him, which is why no number of whippings can break his spirit. However, it's something of a Catch 22 that Nightjohn's refusal to be broken actually makes him less valuable as a slave, with Clel purchasing him for only a fraction of his worth. The dependence of the white characters on their slaves is echoed in the character of Callie, who needs Dealey/Lorraine Toussaint (Sarny's principle caregiver who gets her a position in the house) to do her hair before a dinner party, and her youngest son, Homer/John Herina, who's about six and still hasn't been toilet trained.

Clel and Callie's oldest son, Jeffrey/Joel Thomas Traywick is conflicted about inheriting the plantation and initially is made to seem sympathetic (at one point he tells Clel that Outlaw is his friend), but one of the striking aspects about the film is its pessimism about crossing racial divides. The paper for the two forged passes is taken from a bible Sarny steals from the house, and Clel beats Jeffrey for losing it. When Jeffrey finds the bible in the cabin where the slaves sleep, he says to himself "And twice on Sunday," recalling Clel's warning that a smart slave will fool him everyday of the week. In contrast to the self-congratulatory notion that Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, Nightjohn suggests that freedom has to be taken; the film would make a great double bill with Lars von Trier's Manderlay (2005), in which the characters are incapable of breaking the psychological bonds of slavery sixty years after the end of the civil war.

I've only seen a few of Burnett's films so far, but for the moment my two favorites are Killer of Sheep and Nightjohn, which are in some respects polar opposites: the former is an episodic portrait of life in the ghetto made in relative independence, and the latter is a polished piece of didactic storytelling made inside the studio system. You would never know they were directed by the same man; admirers of Killer of Sheep might turn their noses up at Nightjohn because it was produced by the Dinsey Channel, while the latter film's original audience had probably never heard of Killer of Sheep. I'm more than a little skeptical of Pauline Kael's defense of Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde (1967) as a film that appeals to every kind of moviegoer--why should a film that's so much more than a gangster picture have to please people who aren't sophisticated enough to appeciate it except on the lowest possible level?--and Nightjohn unintentionally exemplifies the dangers of making a film that works on more than one level: Disney wanted from Burnett something professional and boring, and when he delivered something personal and wonderful that still works for its intended audience, the studio insisted on treating it as something professional and boring anyway, and it's entirely possible that no one working for the studio knew what they had. By the same token, while Killer of Sheep was almost instantly recognized as a classic and was one of the first movies selected to be preserved by the Library of Congress in 1990, until a few months ago, it was nearly impossible to see. And at the time Burnett made To Sleep With Anger, he was averaging a film every decade. Whether working in as an independent or within the mainstream, Burnett's been unfairly marginalized his entire career, and it's filmgoers who lose out in the process.

1. Just to clarify, here's a list of the Burnett films I've seen as of February 15th, 2008: Several Friends (1969), Killer of Sheep, the longer version of My Brother's Wedding (I've only sampled the shorter version), When it Rains, Nightjohn and Quiet as Kept (2007).

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