On Charles Burnett, Winner of 2017 Honorary Oscar Award

by James Naremore, author of Charles Burnett: A Cinema of Symbolic Knowledge


I learned about Charles Burnett’s honorary Oscar on September 7th, the day after the news was announced and the very day I was in LA to present a Scholar’s lecture on him for the Motion Picture Academy. He attended the event along with many of his actors and technicians, and the large crowd’s excitement over the news was palpable. This award brings overdue national attention to an artist who is arguably the most important African-American film director.

Photo of Charles Burnett and James Naremore
Charles Burnett and James Naremore

Virtually all Burnett’s work is devoted to the proposition that black lives matter. To discuss him entirely that way, however, is to potentially ghettoize his importance. He deals with conflicts and affectionate bonds not only within black communities but also between blacks and whites, and his pictures have generosity of spirit, defamiliarizing power, and general relevance. There’s nothing obscure about his films (several of them are straightforward history lessons aimed at teenagers), but he resists melodrama, doesn’t traffic in sex and violence, and assumes a caring, thoughtful audience. Hence, he doesn’t appeal to your average Hollywood producer and has remained as authentic an independent as one can be.

Cover image for James Naremore's book on Charles Burnett
Available October 2017

No career is more deserving of an Oscar. Killer of Sheep (1977), which concerns a black father in Watts who works in a slaughterhouse, has been listed as one of the 100 hundred essential pictures by the National Society of Film Critics and was among the first films to be designated a “National Treasure” by the Library of Congress. To Sleep with Anger (1990), is a masterful blending of humor and gothic moods within a black family. The Glass Shield (1994) is a powerful account of police corruption and murder, based on actual events. Nightjohn (1996), is a moving account of Southern slavery told from the point of view of a young black girl, and belongs in company with the finest TV films ever made; and the half-documentary, half-fictional Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (2003) is in my view the best treatment of the subject in either film or print. These are only a few of the remarkable movies I had the pleasure of discussing in my forthcoming book, Charles Burnett: A Cinema of Symbolic Knowledge.


James Naremore is Chancellor’s Professor Emeritus at Indiana University and author of The Magic World of Orson Welles, Acting in the Cinema, More than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts, On Kubrick, and An Invention without a Future: Essays on Cinema.