From 'nothing' to Oscar: Celebrated African-American filmmaker in Winnipeg

He's been called America's "least-known great filmmaker and most gifted black director" by the New York Times, but as a child, Charles Burnett was told by his junior high school teacher he would never amount to anything.

Charles Burnett's work presented at Afro Prairie Film Festival

Filmmaker Charles Burnett was in Winnipeg this weekend for the Afro Prairie Film Festival. (Bryce Hoye/CBC)

He's been called America's "least-known great filmmaker and most gifted black director" by the New York Times, but as a child, Charles Burnett was told by his junior high school teacher he would never amount to anything.

"I was in this classroom and the teacher came down the aisle pointing out students who weren't going to be anything in life. And I was one of them, sitting down and he came over, stood over me and said 'And you're not going to be anything.'

"I remember walking home from school saying 'I'm going to say something about this at some point.'"

Burnett was in Winnipeg this weekend, taking part in the Afro Prairie Film Festival at Cinematheque. There, his critically-acclaimed film To Sleep With Anger was screened for participants. Like most of his films, it features a working-class black family in America.

"There was no voice for those people," said Burnett. "For years, Hollywood had perpetuated these awful myths and stereotypes about us that still exist, you know. And I know that wasn't who we were."

In the past, films directed by people of colour may have made more money per screen than blockbusters did, but studio executives kept quiet about it, said Burnett, limiting potential profits and not believing there was a wider market.

"In this business, it's all about rejection and trying to survive through this madness. Everyone's telling you 'You can't do this, you can't do that.' It was like a continuation of my junior high school."

Things are changing today, said Burnett, especially for young people and young filmmakers. "What's more amazing, is that a lot of these films are making a lot of money now."

With films like Get Out, Back Panther and Hidden Figures dominating box offices and garnering critical and audience acclaim, Burnett expects change to accelerate even faster. 

Major studios don't care about the social impact of films, said Burnett. They care about the bottom line. 

"That's the language people in this business respect and understand. They can't say, anymore, that this film isn't commercial, that you won't get your money back if you invest in the film."

In 2017, it was announced that Burnett would be receiving a Governor's Award — also called an "honourary Oscar" — for his lifetime of achievement in film. 

"It sort of validates what you've come through … I had no dream of getting an Oscar. That was way out of my league." 

His advice for aspiring and emerging black filmmakers?

"Read as much as you can, understand where you're coming from, and make as many films as you can. And form a collective in your community. The films we were making were addressing their needs."

The Afro Prairie Film Festival was a partnership between Black Film Winnipeg and Winnipeg Film Group.