For being one of the most important American independent movies ever made, Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep isn't known much.
In fact, strangely, it hasn't even been released theatrically until this year despite being made in the 1970s. Burnett, an African-American writer/director, shot this low-key, impressionistic and strikingly poetic 81-minute look at black life in L.A.'s Watts neighborhood for his MFA thesis at UCLA.
It was finished in 1977 and has screened at film festivals, film schools and museums off and on for decades, becoming a huge influence on those who could see it. Only 16-millimeter prints existed. In 1978, it was selected for New York's Whitney Museum New American Filmmakers series. At the 1981 Berlin Film Festival, it won an award.
Most impressively, in 1990 the Library of Congress' National Film Registry Board named Killer of Sheep to its National Film Registry of historic American movies. In its class of 25 inductees were All About Eve, The Godfather, Rebel Without a Cause, Top Hat and John Cassavetes' A Woman Under the Influence.
Finally, the UCLA Film and Television Archive in collaboration with Milestone Films worked to restore the film, putting together a pristine 35-millimeter print that enlivens the vivid contrasts of the black-and-white cinematography and sharpens the sound. Finally playing a New York cinema proper -- the IFC Center in late March and April -- it set a house record.
Theaters across the country have been clamoring to show the new print of this "lost" classic. (UC's MainStreet Cinema moved quickly and got a print early. It shows May 19-June 1 in repertory with other titles.)
So why is Killer of Sheep so important? First, it's a prescient -- some might say visionary -- anomaly to its time. Burnett made this film during a period of "blaxploitation" cinema that featured action-oriented violence and exaggeratedly stylized heroic characters like Superfly, Dolomite and Truck Turner.
Compared to their formulaic grindhouse template, Killer of Sheep is a dreamscape. Burnett was already in his thirties when he made it, even though still a graduate student, and his influences are European art cinema and maybe Ralph Ellison's novel The Invisible Man.
The Watts of his film is a viable community where people know each other, but it's also an impoverished and tough one that looks like it has been damaged. (The Watts riots were in 1965.) As such, it's reminiscent of postwar Italian neorealist films like Open City and The Bicycle Thief, especially in the attention Burnett pays to the children who play in the sun-baked, dusty urban/industrial infrastructure -- the train tracks, construction sites, apartment rooftops.
There's also the presence of Michelangelo Antonioni's existential films in the plight of the central character, Stan (Henry G. Sanders), a good-natured low-income family man whose work in a slaughterhouse has alienated him from the meaning of life. He can't sleep, appears to be impotent despite the soothing efforts of his wife (Kaycee Moore) and goes about the house with such a soft-spoken lethargy that he almost could be invisible.
Burnett keeps returning to the sheep slaughterhouse for Eisenstein-like montages, often underscored with music like Paul Robeson's sorrowful "Going Home" or Little Walter's bitingly apt Chicago-Blues classic, "Mean Old World."
Ostensibly, Killer of Sheep is Stan's metaphoric story -- in addition to his family life, the film's minimal plot concerns how he and a friend try to buy a $15 used engine to drive a car. In all honesty, the metaphoric elements of being a "killer of sheep" drive Stan's character a little too much and seem dated. But the seductive rhythm of Killer of Sheep makes the film something more than that story -- it's a bittersweet ode to life itself, especially African-American life.
Burnett introduces the audience to new characters before Stan sees or interacts with them. Some of them are F-word-spewing ne'er-do-wells -- two men try to convince Stan to take part in a murder with them. Others are sweet and reveal a wonderful honesty -- a friend's wife, offered a can of peaches by Stan, looks at him in a piercingly trusting way before saying, "No, thank you."
Burnett's cinematography is spectacular. A group of people sit in a car, seemingly preparing for a trip, before one reaches through a missing windshield to grab a beer on the hood. Stan's young daughter (Angela Burnett) sings along wordlessly to Earth, Wind and Fire's "Reasons" while his wife uses a saucepan lid to study her own face.
And the children! In another scene, the daughter wears a dogface mask in the kitchen. Neighborhood boys, including Stan's son, form the film's Greek chorus -- doing headstands on the front porch, throwing rocks at passing trains, ditching a bike when loose dogs chase them or jumping between rooftops as the camera catches them from below. The influence on David Gordon Green's George Washington is notable.
Killer of Sheep's use of music is also remarkable. Besides the songs previously mentioned, it masterfully uses George Gershwin, Louis Armstrong, Faye Adams, Elmore James, William Grant Still's "Afro American Symphony" and Dinah Washington's "This Bitter Earth." Since this was just meant to be a student film, Burnett didn't get rights to use the music. That's one reason it has had so much trouble getting a theatrical release.
Burnett has gone on to have a decent if low-key career as an independent filmmaker, especially for television projects -- Oprah Winfrey hired him to direct 1998's The Wedding starring Halle Berry. Danny Glover served as executive producer and starred in Burnett's best-known theatrical release, 1990's To Sleep With Anger, in which a devilish outsider visits an innocent family.
Here's hoping Killer of Sheep's belated release helps Burnett make some new major films. Grade: A-