This interview is part of a series about the 50 greatest fictional deaths of all time. It has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Slate: What do you remember about writing Harry’s death scene and the choices you made about how he goes?
Charles Burnett: Well, the story had a lot to do with folklore, and one of the things I based it on was a Georgia folk tale called “Hairy Man.” It’s about a trickster, and one of the things in the structure of this folkloric tale is that the trickster kind of bargains you out of your soul. And in order to get it back you have to out-trick him.
But to complete that story, it would’ve taken a number of scenes, 10 or 15 minutes more in film time, to really follow the folkloric structure and have Babe Brother out-trick Harry. And I didn’t have that time! So I used the little kid to circumvent that. The marbles fall on the floor and Harry falls over the marbles and dies.
Harry is such a mysterious, borderline malevolent character throughout. And then his death is so undignified—almost comic.
Most of the folklore has that element to it. Like Br’er Rabbit, who is caught and then swears up and down that being thrown in a briar patch is a disaster for him, and that’s his escape. It’s satisfying in a certain way. And the kid’s marbles spilling all over the place is such a common thing. I used to have a can full of marbles and you always had to worry about that.
Harry’s body just stays on the kitchen floor for so long. No one comes to get him.
I wanted to show that in spite of everything, Harry remains in the house. He actually, in a certain sense, wins. Harry’s death solved a lot of things, but it didn’t free them from him, in a sense. The problems, for example, between the father and the youngest son who doesn’t want these folkways to interfere with his desires to be a middle-class person: Those issues are still there to some extent. There’s an undercurrent there. That’s what happens when a folk tale is imposed upon an ordinary situation.