Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: With the fabled Snyder Cut improbably making its way to HBO Max this week, we’re looking back on other significant directors’ cuts.
Though he’s revered as one of the great, independent African American filmmakers, Charles Burnett has had trouble getting his early films seen by a wider audience. His landmark 1978 Killer Of Sheep, eventually deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry, featured music whose rights Burnett had not secured, which prevented it from being theatrically released for years. A sad fate also befell his 1983 follow-up, My Brother’s Wedding, which got shelved after the producers sent a rough cut to the New Directors/New Films Festival in New York; less-than-favorable reviews there scared off distributors.
When the films got picked up in 2007 by Milestone Film And Video, which arranged belated theatrical releases for both, Burnett went back to the editing booth to re-cut Wedding. In a move that’s considered very unusual in the director’s cut game, he made a new version of Wedding that’s actually shorter than the 115-minute original. Indeed, Burnett trimmed a lot of fat for the 81-minute director’s cut, shortening many scenes and excising several that were just plain old unnecessary. The movie is now leaner and tighter. (If you feel like comparing the original and the director’s cut, you’re gonna have to track down the Killer Of Sheep DVD set from 2007 that included both versions. The director’s cut is the only version available online.)
The story is still the same, though. Taking place in Burnett’s South Central Los Angeles stomping grounds (where he also set Sheep), My Brother’s Wedding follows Pierce Mundy (Everett Silas), a 30-year-old brotha who mostly spends his days working at his parents’ dry-cleaning store and running errands for the rest of his family. Pierce has been in a salty mood lately—all the talk in the fam has been about the upcoming nuptials of his lawyer big brother (Monte Easter) and his upper-class bride (Gaye Shannon-Burnett). A self-proclaimed working man, Pierce feels his brother has turned into a snooty sellout, about to marry into a family that he believes doesn’t know the first thing about hard work.
Pierce has more brotherly affection for longtime buddy Soldier (Ronnie Bell), who’s just been released from prison. Even though everyone in the neighborhood thinks Soldier is bad news, Pierce remains true to his reckless pal—a loyalty tested in the finale, when he has to choose between being there for his boy or serving as the best man at… well, you know.
Even after the streamlining, Wedding is still far from polished. Just as he did with Sheep, Burnett cast actors who are clearly amateurs, many delivering stiff line readings and awkwardly over-emoting. When it comes to authenticity, the director cares more about the surroundings than the performances. His is a more complicated, less monolithic view of inner-city Black America—something practically nonexistent in the grim and bleak ’hood movies that would hit theaters a decade later. Although Burnett’s South Central is a place where the old folks can be seen getting their pistols just in case things get crazy, it’s still filled with interesting, colorful characters and is even funny on some occasions. At the center of it all is Pierce, a frustrated man-child torn between slacking off and succumbing to the responsibilities of adulthood.
In the past couple years, indie-film distributors have been unearthing lost, low-budget films—like Kathleen Collins’ Losing Ground and Horace B. Jenkins’ Cane River—made by African American directors who sadly never got to see their work reach audiences all over. So it’s heartening that the still-with-us Burnett (who received an honorary Oscar in 2017) wasn’t just around to witness the theatrical release of My Brother’s Wedding but also to assure that it was the version of the film he wanted audiences to see.