Killer of Sheep

A Stellar Revival

Thirty years after it was first (barely) released, the landmark U.S. independent film Killer of Sheep is finally getting decent theatrical distribution on the art-house circuit. Directed by African-American filmmaker Charles Burnett on an extremely low budget, and using mainly non-professional actors, the film was hailed by the National Society of Film Critics as one of the 100 essential films of all time, and in 1990 was selected by Library of Congress for inclusion in the National Film Registry. But for years the film was more written about than seen by audiences, and when shown was exhibited in raggedy 16mm prints. New financial support from various sources funded a restoration through the UCLA Film & Television Archive, which resulted in glorious new 35mm prints. The backers also paid for rights to the soundtrack music of musical giants including Paul Robeson, Little Walter, and Dinah Washington, previously a stumbling block for wider release.

Critic Armond White wrote that the film “represents the highest example of contemporary black American life put on screen because of Burnett’s integrity to view it purely, without typical corrupted Hollywood devices.”

Burnett explained in an excellent long interview in the online journal senses of cinema that when he studied film at UCLA in the late 1960s and early 1970s: “It was a wonderful place to be and I’m glad I went there… You didn’t make films for commercial reasons or using your student film as a calling card for Hollywood. Hollywood wasn’t accessible to black independent filmmakers, or films by people of color, unless they were black exploitation films. You never expected anything from Hollywood. Filmmaking was for you making personal and political statements. All the people attending the course were there making films in response to false and negative images that Hollywood films were promoting. There was an anti-Hollywood attitude, but it was more than that, the focus was on you telling your story and working out an aesthetic.” Killer of Sheep was Burnett’s thesis film in that program, shot over many weekends in Watts.

The film is a study of a sensitive young family man who works in a slaughterhouse and suffers from exhaustion and insomnia. It examines connections between people and family dynamics against a background of grinding poverty and minimal hope. Like the deep blues that dominates the film’s wonderful soundtrack, it is profoundly unsentimental but buoyed with emotional resonance and hilarious moments. Burnett cites Jean Renoir’s too rarely screened The Southerner (which William Faulkner helped write) as an influence, but what struck me were similarities, especially in the spare, poetic beauty of the cinematography, to the films of another acknowledged influence, the Indian master Satyajit Ray. Like Ray, Burnett focuses on the less than spectacular, small details of life that define character, and the socio-economic realities of poor people in the modern world.

Burnett’s work with the many children who appear in Killer of Sheep is impressive, at times recalling In the Street, the experimental documentary made by Helen Levitt and James Agee in the mid 1940s. The kids are spontaneous, funny, troubled, complicated and often confused. The honest, direct representation of these children makes them seem to exist in a separate universe from the coddled, cloying child actors that clog today’s movie and TV screens.

After receiving a 1988 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship grant, Burnett released the critically-lauded To Sleep With Anger in 1990, which starred Danny Glover and featured an incredible cameo by legendary blues singer Jimmy Witherspoon. Like his earlier work, it is not an easily pigeon-holed piece of commercial filmmaking. To Sleep With Anger examines black folklore at the roots of African-American lives in Los Angeles; it was screened in only 18 theaters nationally, and suffered from an inadequate advertising budget. After that disappointment with minimal studio backing, Burnett turned to television work, where, among other projects, he directed a documentary about U.S. immigration called “America Becoming.”

In the 1990s, Burnett lost creative control on at least one other Hollywood vehicle (The Blue Shield). In Burnett’s words, “I have no interest to do cars banging into each other; most of the films I like to do aren’t very commercial. They’re not high concept. They’re hard to pitch to executives. They’re character-driven and theme-driven. I mean, I’m not trying to be sophisticated, but my movies are not designed for 18-year-olds.”

It is welcome news that Milestone Film and Video is not only releasing Killer of Sheep in theatres but will put out a DVD of the film, along with several shorts by Burnett, later this year. Milestone also plans to release a director’s cut of Burnett’s second film My Brother’s Wedding, originally released in a version not approved by Burnett.

Ben Terrall is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, Counterpunch, Lip Magazine, and other publications. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Ben, or visit Ben's website.

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  1. Philip V. said on June 4th, 2007 at 8:32am #

    Thanks I’ll be looking for this.