Out of the Shadows

"Killer of Sheep" examines everyday life in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts in the early 1970s. In 1990, the Library of Congress named it one of the first 50 films to be preserved in the National Film Registry. (Milestone Films Photos)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 3, 2007

At a screening of the film "Killer of Sheep" at the Maryland Film Festival last month, an African American woman in the audience raised her hand during the question-and-answer session. She praised the film -- about a working-class African American man trying to survive in the Watts section of Los Angeles in the early 1970s -- as an "interesting slice of life." Then she noted the "dismal nature" of the lives of the protagonist and his neighbors, many of whom seemed to be caught up in a hopeless cycle of passivity and victimization.

The woman finally directed a pointed question to the two white distributors who had brought the film to Baltimore: "Why," she asked pointedly, "do you feel all of America needs to see this film?"

Amy Heller, who with her husband, Dennis Doros, is distributing a restored print of "Killer of Sheep" through their company, Milestone Film and Video, was quick to respond: "It's a great work of art." That is indisputably true: Shot in 1973 by Charles Burnett as his thesis film for a master's of fine arts degree at UCLA, "Killer of Sheep" is a legend in film circles as one of the most astonishing directorial debuts in American cinematic history. (It was finished in 1977.) Most often compared to "The Bicycle Thief," its elliptical narrative, poetic-realist aesthetic and deep humanism rank it with the works of Renoir, Ozu and Bresson. Largely on the strength of the film -- which was made for less than $10,000, over a series of weekends, using mostly amateur actors and crew -- Burnett received a MacArthur "genius grant" in 1988. In 1990 "Killer of Sheep" was named by the Library of Congress as one of the first 50 films to be preserved in its National Film Registry.

So "Killer of Sheep" has secured its place in the film canon, having been at first dismissed but then duly lionized by the critical establishment over the course of rare showings at museums and festivals. But at that screening in Baltimore, the burning question seemed to be: Why now? And, one might add, what does it mean that it's taken 30 years for "Killer of Sheep" to find its rightful place in theaters?

The answers to those questions, like the questions themselves, are complicated, threading as they do through the complex matrix of race, class, American film culture and the vagaries of the movie business. For some, the arrival of "Killer of Sheep" in theaters -- it broke the weekly box office record at New York's IFC Center in March -- is cause for rejoicing; for others, it's yet another grim reminder of how often brilliant cinematic visions become marginalized and silenced.

When Burnett, now 63, made "Killer of Sheep," he didn't aspire to have the film distributed theatrically. "At that time, there wasn't really a means of distribution for independent films. We didn't have Sundance," Burnett said recently from his office in Los Angeles. (He's gone on to make such highly regarded films as "To Sleep With Anger," "The Glass Shield" and "Nightjohn," as well as one of the segments of Martin Scorsese's "The Blues.") "There weren't many places to see independent films, and they didn't include black films. And I think that was good in many ways, because we made films just to be making films, for people in the community."

But thanks to word of mouth within the academic world, "Killer of Sheep"-- which follows a slaughterhouse worker named Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders) as he battles insomnia, sexual impotence and the predations of the poverty and petty crime that surround him -- was shown at schools and festivals in the United States, as well as Berlin and Toronto. When "Killer of Sheep" screened at the Whitney Museum in 1978, New York Times critic Janet Maslin was unimpressed, calling the film "more arid than it is genuinely economical" and accusing Burnett of "arty detachment from his material."

Maslin could not have been farther from the truth: In fact, Burnett, who was born in Mississippi, had lived in Watts from an early age, and made "Killer of Sheep" in part to dispel the images of that neighborhood that had been purveyed by Hollywood blaxploitation films and in the white-run news media. Although Sanders was a professional actor, his co-stars and the children, who literally run through the film as a playful, almost pastoral leitmotif, were Burnett's own neighbors and relatives.

As we watch Stan relate to his frustrated wife (played by Kaycee Moore) and his two children, as well as a series of friends, shopkeepers, petty criminals and the demoralizing environment of the slaughterhouse, Burnett injects moments of pathos, eroticism and humor. The narrative, composed of vignettes of daily life, is interrupted with scenes of children making mischief on the streets of Watts and neighboring Compton, as well as the faces of the doomed, dutiful sheep. Throughout, "Killer of Sheep" possesses a tenderness and compassion for its subjects that bespeaks Burnett's deep love for his community; to say he was detached from South Central L.A. is tantamount to suggesting that Scorsese just didn't get Little Italy.

But if the Times review scuttled chances for "Killer of Sheep" to have a commercial life, another obstacle was financial. Burnett used more than 18 blues and jazz songs -- including Dinah Washington's haunting version of "This Bitter Earth" and Paul Robeson singing "The House I Live In" -- and acquiring the rights to the music was prohibitively expensive. Eight years ago, Ross Lipman, a film restorationist at UCLA Film & Television Archive, received a Sundance Institute grant, part of which was used to restore the 16mm print of "Killer of Sheep" and blow it up to 35mm. Lipman called Doros, who through Milestone has rereleased such classics as "I Am Cuba," "Mabarosi" and "Winter Soldier" on DVD. "The light bulb instantly went on in my head that no one has seen this film, and we should do this," Doros recalls. It took Doros and Heller three years to get halfway through sorting out the music rights; ultimately those rights cost more than $150,000. When director Steven Soderbergh heard about the project, he wrote what Doros would only call "a lovely check" to help them climb out of the debt the company had incurred. Milestone will release the DVD of "Killer of Sheep" in November.

But there's another "Why now?" question that speaks more directly to what the young woman was expressing back in Baltimore: With its sometimes painfully candid depiction of black life -- including domineering women, aimless men, Southern dialect and a minor act of cruelty that anticipates the gang violence that would engulf so many African American communities -- could "Killer of Sheep" be too intimate? Considering the fraught history of race and American cinema, she seemed to be asking: Is such honesty too politically risky?

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