Renowned filmmaker Charles Burnett came to Hopkins to sit in on a screening of one of his own movies, Nightjohn, and talked about the movie and his career after the showing last Thursday.
The event, organized by the Hopkins Film and Media Studies program, drew enough people, many of whom were students majoring in Film and Media Studies, to just about fill up an auditorium in Shaffer — albeit with many empty seats. With more than 100 in attendance, Matthew Porterfield, a lecturer in the Film and Media Studies program who also moderated the discussion session after the screening, considered the event to be a great success.
“I thought it was a great turnout, especially because it was something we put together in the last minute,” Porterfield said. “I think everyone was excited to meet Charles Burnett.”
Indeed, his celebrity status among film buffs was the main reason he was brought to Hopkins and why he was so well-received, especially considering the short notice (the announcement of his visit was sent out to film students just a few days earlier). Burnett was a well-known indie filmmaker in the ‘70s and ‘80s, producing classics such as My Brother’s Wedding (1983), To Sleep with Anger (1990), The Glass Shield (1994), and — perhaps the work he’s best known for — Killer of Sheep (1977). Many of the Film and Media Studies majors present at the event had come because they had greatly enjoyed his seminal work.
“[Killer of Sheep] is the reason I’m here,” senior Film and Media Studies major Diana Peralta said. “I saw [Killer of Sheep] in my sophomore year, and it was a beautiful, life-changing film. He’s become an inspiration for my own works, and that’s why I was so glad when Hopkins decided to bring him.”
Fellow Film and Media Studies majors Alexandra Byer and Joshua Gleason agreed.
“It was a great opportunity to see this great filmmaker, especially because we’ve studied Killer of Sheep in multiple classes,” Byer said. “You know, it’s not often that we get to see directors that we’re studying.”
“Killer of Sheep was such a great movie,” Gleason added. “I had to see [Burnett] for myself.”
Linda DeLibero, associate director of the Film and Media Studies program, perhaps put it best:
“In film circles, he’s a god,” she said.
It was precisely such wide-spread recognition among the students that Porterfield, on behalf of the Film and Media Studies program, decided to host Burnett.
“Knowing that there was an interest from the student body in Killer of Sheep, it made sense to bring him here,” Porterfield said. “It’s a priority for us to bring films not only to the Hopkins community but to the larger Baltimore movie-going population.”
Although the decision to bring Burnett to Hopkins had been made by those teaching at the University, the decision to show Nightjohn at Thursday’s event was entirely Burnett’s.
“The first reason I chose Nightjohn to be screened [at Hopkins] was because it’s about learning and education, which is befitting a place of learning like Hopkins,” Burnett said. “The second reason is because it’s Black History Month, and I thought [the movie] would do justice to it.”
Set in the south during the 1850s, Nightjohn depicts the story of a plantation slave girl who struggles to learn how to read and write in defiance of the law preventing slaves from being literate. She learns from Nightjohn, a new slave on the plantation who is not only literate but devoted to the mission of educating fellow slaves.
“The film is essentially about the importance of education, something that some people take for granted,” Burnett said. “Especially to my younger audience, I wanted to make them realize that it’s a privilege to learn.”
But Burnett had not come to Hopkins just for that message. After the movie, he addressed the future film directors in the crowd about the technical aspect of being in the movie-making business.
Among other things, he especially emphasized the difficulties of being an independent director in today’s big-studio-run world.
“It’s a hard world out there,” Burnett said. “It’s definitely not going to be any bit easy.”
The students were somewhat shook by some of the words from a filmmaker who had gone through what they were likely to go through if they chose to enter the film industry, but retained a degree of optimism.
“I’m sure he’s correct,” Byer said, “but you still have to keep working at it if that’s what you want to do.”
Junior Film and Media Studies major Clare Richardson remains undaunted by the challenge.
“If it’s something you’re passionate about, you should pursue it in any way possible, no matter how hard it is,” she said. “There [are] certain avenues of film world that are very hard to get into, but you just have to get your foot in the door in any way you can, and ending up doing what you want to do is feasible possibility.”
For others, Burnett was the very proof that they could succeed in the highly-competitive world that was waiting them.
“[Burnett] was a student film maker when he made [Killer of Sheep],” Peralta said.
“He didn’t have many resources, just like how we don’t have much here. But we manage to make some pretty great stuff, just like he managed to do, so I’m confident.”
Similarly, Byer saw Burnett as a source of confidence, not despair, for her prospects in the movie industry.
“I think he’s a testament to the fact that we can succeed too,” Byer said, “what he was doing at that time was totally different from what was being done. But he made it.
Likewise, we can’t stop just because it’s hard.”
Indeed, for those film students who were there to see their idol, the overwhelming feeling was that they left with more passion for their medium.
“I can’t stop believing that if I love doing it as much as I do, and keep going at it that I’ll find my place in the film-making world,” Peralta said.