The theatrical releases of Killer of Sheep (1977) and My Brother's Wedding (1983) transformed Charles Burnett from elusive legend to tangible influence. His intimate tales of life in South Central Los Angeles have influenced indie filmmakers with their verisimilitude and heartfelt specificity. The black families at the heart of these films have strong Southern roots, and as much as they are part of their close-knit California community, they're slightly out of step with their neighbors.
The Mundys are focused on the upcoming nuptials of their eldest son, a successful attorney marrying an equally accomplished litigator from an affluent family. Mrs. Mundy (Jessie Holmes) divides her time between church, family obligations, and running a dry cleaning and tailoring shop with her husband (Dennis Kemper). She's a no-nonsense maternal figure, the kind of woman everyone turns to for clear-eyed decision-making. And the loose, funny, early scenes of My Brother's Wedding veer into Tyler Perry territory.
But Burnett's real subject is the family malcontent, 30-year-old Pierce Mundy (Everett Silas), who dutifully works at the dry cleaning shop and cares for his sickly grandparents. His seething anger comes out only when dealing with his older brother's fiancee Sonia (Gaye Shannon-Burnett), waging class warfare whenever she's around. Pierce is the polar opposite when dealing with his feckless childhood friend Soldier (Ronald E. Bell), recently out of prison. Sonia can do no right, and Soldier no wrong, even when he's shamelessly exploiting both Pierce and the women drawn to him.
My Brother's Wedding is episodic, jumping from vignette to vignette without the narrative rigor of Killer of Sheep. At 82 minutes, this director's cut is actually shorter than the original release. Burnett did some judicious trimming, but the result is sometimes choppy. This low-budget film is at once raw and accomplished, as the seemingly random encounters Pierce has with family and friends coalesce into a stark moral dilemma.
Tyler Perry may be independent in his financing, but he's a conventional storyteller who favors tidy resolutions. Burnett is steadfastly idiosyncratic, opting for messy ambiguity. Stubborn, demanding, easily swayed and eager to slip back into childhood, Pierce probably needs to be taught a lesson, but Burnett refuses to simplify his prickly personality.
Unable to make a clear decision about his priorities, Pierce is equally defiant and unsteady. In Burnett's steady hands, his uncertainty is both infuriating and illuminating, highlighting the real difference between adulthood and maturity.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit) at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 13, and at 9:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, March 14-15. Call 313-833-3237.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.