My Brother's Wedding, 1983, directed by Charles Burnett
I did not realize it until after I finished watching My Brother's Wedding the other day and looked up the director's filmography, but the first Burnett film I ever was the made-for-tv drama Selma, Lord, Selma, which I remember watching as a child back when the Wonderful World of Disney still aired every Sunday evening. While a good movie, it was pretty standard and straightforward in its storytelling, which is what one would expect for a movie that would be premiered on ABC.
So I guess I won't count that as my "first" introduction to Burnett because from what I've now seen and read about his work, it's not a true indicator of Burnett's way of storytelling. My Brother's Wedding moves at a deliberately slow pace, oftentimes without any sense of where the story is going. The film centers around a thirty year old named Pierce, who still lives with his parents and works in their dry cleaning business, with no particular passion or desire in life. He's not a particularly lovable character--he uses lame excuses for why he still hasn't made it on his own yet and his judge of character when it comes to his in and out of jail best friend Soldier is highly questionable--but neither is he a character we can't grow to like, or at least attempt to understand. He visits Soldier's mother often while he's in jail, and after his death, goes from house to house in his neighborhood to find old friends to be the pallbearers at his funeral.
Two days later, and I'm still trying to decide how I feel about the film. I can definitely understand the comparisons to Italian neorealism; the storytelling structure, urban focus, and the sense of isolation remind me a lot of The Bicycle Thief. I can also attempt to understand how Burnett was trying to put a lens up to what he had seen and lived, something that is so polar opposite in tone compared to the blaxploitation films of the 70s. But I just don't feel I enjoyed it all that much. The acting leaves much to be desired, especially the actresses who played Pierce's future sister-in-law and the mother, who seemed to me to be just another Bible-thumping black matriarch. And I don't mind films that want me to just go along for the ride, without really explaining how that ride is going to conclude--but in the end, I did not feel fully invested in the characters or the outcome.
I am going to make Killer of Sheep the next Burnett film I watch, since that is the film that seems to define him as a director to the academic and critical world. Something tells me that I just might like that film a lot more. It is strange how he is pretty much an unknown unless you're a cinephile; I had never heard of him until I saw his name in an article I was reading about black filmmakers--his name stuck out to me because I'd never heard of him before. I would definitely recommend My Brother's Wedding and I do plan on watching it again, and even checking out the new version he released a few years back with the edits he originally intended to make. But I don't think I can champion him as a great filmmaker in my opinion--yet.