Sunday, February 14, 2010

A pair of Burnetts: 'Nightjohn' and 'Selma, Lord Selma'

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I suppose Selma, Lord Selma (1999) might be called Burnett's take on the Civil Rights Movement. Easy to wish it had been produced by anyone besides Disney, but that wish is a double-edged sword: if Disney had not coughed up the money, would there be a film at all?

It's not nothing--basically a dramatization of Sheyann Webb and Rachel West's book about their experiences as black children caught up in the turmoil in Selma, Alabama, where the population, as someone in the film informs us, is fifty percent black, though only a tiny fraction are registered to vote.

It's a TV movie; worse, a TV movie about a relevant subject--how much more deadly earnestness can you ask for? Yet Burnett's film feels more substantial than the standard movie of the month, and not just because of the subject matter. Seems to me that telling it through the eyes of a child--in effect turning it into a by turns eyewitness account, learning experience, and life-changing moment for a girl of eleven--is Burnett's way of presenting familiar material in a fresh and urgent manner (and, cannily enough, providing a handy pretext for explaining relatively well-known historical facts).

Burnett often employs black music in its many forms in his films (see Jonathan Rosenbaum's appreciation of his short When it Rains); here he makes full use of the movement's rich legacy of songs as transitional bridges, codas, inspirational pieces. At one point Martin Luther King (Clifton Powell) asks Sheyann (played here by a very young, very charming--perhaps too charming--Jurnee Smollett) to sing "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around." 

Burnett frames King and Sheyann standing before an (unseen) audience, has King introduce Sheyann, then leaves her up there alone; Sheyann looks about her nervously (Burnett keeps the scene free of background music, so quiet you can hear the audience breathe and murmur expectantly), then sings a tentative line. A piano takes up the melody, helping her along; a voice rises out of the audience, joining her in song--Sheyann gradually gains confidence and turns the song into a rousing, up-on-your-feet-and-clapping number. Later, after the crushing despair of Bloody Sunday, Sheyann looks about her in that same church, sees all the men and women bruised and bloodied by truncheons, and--again tentatively, then with growing assurance--reprises the song; the people around her look up in wonder, respond powerfully. It's an unforgettable moment.

Even that old standard "Kumbaya," endlessly parodied and ridiculed by more cynical generations, here regains its serene mystery as a song somehow able to rekindle the tired spirits of marchers who have trudged many miles, and have many more yet to go. 


One sees a bounty of visual grace notes (Sheyann standing alone in church and about to sing being one aforementioned example) adding to and ornamenting this lovely little drama. "Little" is the operative word here--Burnett's storytelling is so modest in spirit, so dedicated to serving the drama's themes one has to search specific instances out and hold them to the light to appreciate their understated artistry. 

When King is first arrested, for example, Burnett gives us a shot of King behind bars, angled and lit so that the bars--coated with a peeling pail paint--almost entirely obscure King's face. The overall impression is of an animal in his cage, hunched over and waiting, a wall of white sealing him off from the outside world. Burnett refuses to leave the man alone, though--his lighting seeks out King's eyes, which gaze outwards with a terrible patience. 

When King speaks at Jimmy Lee Jackson's funeral, Burnett pulls the camera back, revealing wreath after wreath of flowers surrounding him while a mournful singer wails in the background. It's as if Burnett, mindful of King's own violent death to follow a mere three years later, was seizing this chance to pay tribute to the man. 

At the first march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama's capital, Burnett shoots the tiny party of six hundred marchers in profile as they cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge--the image is dreamily lyrical, as if the marchers were crossing from earth to paradise. Later Burnett cuts to an overhead shot of the marchers, the camera gliding from right to left, from water far below to asphalt up close, emphasizing the bridge's precipitous drop and giving the march a strange free-floating quality, as if they were already more than halfway to heaven (one marcher, looking at all the police officers and deputies blocking their way, quips: "See that water down there? I hope you can swim because we're fixin to end up in it").

Working with Disney on a prime-time television movie, Burnett has  developed the marvelous skill of depicting violence without being explicit. The bombing of four black girls in Birmingham is mentioned and the relish with which the story is told, the obvious intent to terrify and intimidate, is to my mind more appalling than any detailed depiction. There are two shootings here, and in both instances Burnett cuts away from the actual killing to other faces, either of the killer or of people affected by the death; again the effect is of Burnett putting emphasis not on death but on death's repercussions--as if the soul in question had been assigned to haunt those left behind, to in effect haunt us.

I can't say Selma Lord Selma breaks entirely free of its television roots--sometimes the visuals are flat and dull, sometimes the dramaturgy is awkward, crude. But at its best, in its moments of quiet love and transcendent power (I'm thinking above all of a little scene at a water fountain), it gives the movement back to us burnished with a bright new glow. 

I submit on the other hand that Burnett's Nightjohn (1996) does in fact break free, and does in fact succeed in transforming the sickeningly wholesome family television format (Hallmark Channel produced, Disney distributed) into something truthful and unsettling (I had shown this to my students, and one of the most repeated comments was the question (accompanied by widened eyes and dropped jaws): "This was shown on the Disney Channel?!"

Nightjohn apparently commanded a larger budget than Selma did; the cinematography is more lush, the production values (necessarily) more elaborate. Carl Lumbly plays his eponymous role with laser-light intensity--fierce eyes framed by dark brow. I can see the actor playing either Jesus Christ or Judas Iscariot, maybe both (I would have had more respect for Mel Gibson if he had cast accordingly in his Christ snuff flick).

Instructive comparing Burnett's film to Gary Paulsen's short novel. Paulsen--a popular writer of youth fiction--here created a brief account of what punishments were in store for rebellious slaves in the South. That's basically what you remembered, coming away from the book--the sadism, the cruelty, the unrelenting, graphic brutality. Clel Waller, the slave owner, was a "white maggot"--his characterization didn't go much further than that (frankly, I thought his characterization bore ugly traces of reverse racism); Sarny was little more than a narrative channel through which the story was told while Nightjohn was essentially a cipher--a tough, noble one but a cipher nevertheless. Paulsen's little book is effective, but to my mind inexpressive--it told its story with curt efficiency, nothing more, nothing less (oddly enough, Paulsen in 1997 wrote a sequel titled Sarny, which seems to benefit somewhat from Paulsen having (strictly my suspicion, no hard evidence to back this up) seen Burnett's adaptation).


Burnett's achievement with no small help from Bill Cain is to take Paulsen's sketches and bring them to full-blooded life. He makes Sarny a quiet yet spirited young girl ("she's still waters" as Dealey (Lorraine Toussaint) perceptively puts it), and John (as he is called in the film) a man who, in losing his family, feels compelled to look for them, and finds himself sufficiently blessed to discover another family along the way. 

Perhaps the biggest difference comes with Burnett and Cain's treatment of Waller. As Beau Bridges plays him, he has an affable, roguish charm, but when he comes down to business, he does so unhesitatingly. He's not a bad man, or (key difference) doesn't think of himself as a bad man--he doesn't punish his slaves because he enjoys it, or because he needs an outlet for his frustrations (at one point he tells his son "I've never whipped a slave in anger" and you can sense the truth of the statement, or at least sense his belief in the truth of that statement); he does so because it's expected of him, part and parcel of the business of owning slaves, what one does to keep them from rising up and cutting one's throat.

When John is found out Waller extracts a terrible penalty; John in the book keeps quiet and carries on the revolution without Waller's knowledge, setting up pit schools (pits dug in the ground and covered so that the light from their lamps don't leak out); John in the film is more open in his defiance; he tells Sarny "when an arm is cut off the other grows stronger; you're my other arm, now." Sarny proves John right--she not only knows as much about reading as he does and at an earlier age, she takes on Waller too, only she has more smarts (if a tad too much recklessness). 


In Paulsen's book John and Sarny take their punishments without complaint, then secretly carry on with the teaching--a quieter, safer way to go. John and particularly Sarny risk more, and in a more open fashion, in Burnett's film, and while the solution to their problems seems unlikely, it does stem from the fact that they are more capable people, thanks to their self-education, that reading does have its immediate usefulness, is a major tool in the game of survival.

Burnett's visual style here can be summed up simply: the antebellum South is depicted with much of its glamor, especially in the dinner Waller holds for his older brother and guests--all sweeping candlelit shots and extravagantly plush accents; when the issue of slavery pops up, the cameras stop gliding and stare at the little cruelty that occurs (involving Sarny and a dropped tray of food) with unblinking relentlessness. When John is teaching Sarny it's in the warm glow of firelight--as if Sarny was warming her relative ignorance in the blaze of John's mind; when the slavers intrude, as in the scene involving the stolen bible, Burnett shoots everything under a merciless noon sun, the better to capture the horrors to come. 

Interesting to note that some of my students have already seen the two films; that somehow teachers have gotten wind of these two little-known projects, and are showing them to kids, possibly for Black History Month. Ironic to think that Burnett rarely gets the money to make projects, that Disney of all people would bankroll him, and that it would be these two Disney projects that would give him the most exposure, at least for the next generation.

Interesting also to see how, with the familiar subject of slavery and civil rights, Burnett resorts to telling his stories through the eyes of intelligent young girls. I'd mentioned how relating the story of  the civil rights movement through the eyes of Sheyann Webb lent the tale fresh urgency. In the case of Nightjohn, telling the story through Sarny gives it the feel of a fairy tale, gives it a ravishing sheen that enhances slavery's many horrors (I particularly remember Burnett's strikingly firelit shot of the old man's face as he recites his alphabet, just before he reveals the price he paid for learning it), adds depth and resonance to the film's dramatic high points (John's farewell to Sarny, Sarny's final thoughts on John). Burnett takes two of the most important episodes in African-American history (slavery, the civil rights movement), and gives his own humanistic, quiet, gracefully told take on them--all on a TV movie budget, under the banner of the Disney corporation. That, to my mind, is a genuine miracle. 

3 comments:

Andy Rector said...

This is a tremendous piece Noel. Few have accounted for the small but fine and constant narrative glories of these small films, and none so well. Have you seen Burnett's FINDING BUCK MCHENRY (2000)? It also is of the "wholesome family television format", and also becomes, I think, a deeply troubling film. It too tells the story from the point of view of a child, but here it's a white teenager discovering for the first time the racist American past he has inherited. This of course cracks the wholesome facade of the first half of the film, though the facade keeps parading before us, just as what it is: covering immense scars. Then the white teen becomes overzealous (easily the most overzealous child in the history of cinema!) in his desire to try to heal (but heal what remains a scar), getting the media involved, etc. and it becomes a lesson in discretion: something dear to Burnett. Contrary to appearances, it's quite a violent film.

Noel Vera said...

Thanks Andy. No, I've missed that one. I did see his recent TV movie--interesting, I think I should see it again, but on first glance it seems like standard Hallmark fare. I saw My Brother's Wedding, Jacobean drama that prefigures To Sleep with Anger. Saw Jonathan R.'s favorite, When it Rains (and it's lovely). I'd love to do a piece on To Sleep With Anger, someday.

Noel Vera said...

Andy, did finally see Finding Buck McHenry. Over the Hallmark Channel benevolence and happy ending there's an endless reservoir of pain here.

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