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Charles Burnett’s Road to Oscar Was Paved by Socially Conscious Storytelling

Given the amount of recognition he’s received from film critics and the number of awards he’s received over the course of his career, it’s not surprising that Charles Burnett was selected to receive an honorary Academy Award — unless you’re Charles Burnett, that is, in which case you’re still struggling to process the news.

“I didn’t know what to think,” says Burnett. “It’s one of those things you never expect, so there was no way it was on my mind. It just took me by surprise. And I’m still surprised.”

Although he was born in Vicksburg, Miss., Burnett was only a few years old when his family moved to Watts, the Los Angeles neighborhood that would ultimately serve as the setting for his debut feature film, “Killer of Sheep.” Originally submitted as Burnett’s Master of Fine Arts thesis at UCLA in 1977, “Killer of Sheep” was selected for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1990. That is pretty impressive when you consider that Burnett started out with no plans to make a career out of filmmaking.

“I thought I was going to go into electronics,” says Burnett. “I just thought I’d be making films on the weekend and showing them to my friends and then making a living doing something else.”

Burnett transitioned from indie films into the world of bigger-budget projects in 1990 with “To Sleep With Anger,” starring Danny Glover, Sheryl Lee Ralph and Carl Lumbly. That was followed by 1994’s “The Glass Shield,” featuring Ice Cube, Lori Petty and Michael Boatman.

“Charles is a true filmmaker,” says Lumbly, who has worked on five projects with Burnett over the years. “He has an eye, he has an ear, and he marries both of them wonderfully. My father used to say — and I’m sure someone else said it first — that things don’t just happen, they happen just. And it may have taken longer than I would’ve liked, but I’m thrilled that this honor and recognition is happening for Charles.”

Burnett continues to work regularly, shifting between films and television while also mixing things up between dramas and documentaries, but even though he’s now 73, he’s not contemplating retirement anytime soon.

“I can’t afford to retire,” he says, with a wry laugh. “I still have my son’s student loans to deal with. I’m not going anywhere!”

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