Out of the Shadows
Landmark '70s Film Finally Draws a Spotlight, And Difficult Questions

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?

"It's a misunderstood film in the black community," says Haile Gerima, who teaches film at Howard University and studied with Burnett at UCLA, where the two were frequent collaborators. "Because it's a community that is in a state of siege by stereotyped racism. . . . The very language of what's a good film, what kind of film should be made about us, all these things are hostages to this historical circumstance [of white supremacy]."

He continues: "To me, it's one of the giant works that came out of black cinema in America. So people might have reservations that what I would call contradictions were amplified, but to me they are a very profound human story."

Thomas Cripps, a professor emeritus of history at Morgan State University who has written frequently about African American cinema, agrees. "I think it's a legitimate question to raise from black circles," he says regarding the woman's question, noting the statistic that about 5,000 black people were lynched in this country between 1882 and 1968. "You can't help but grow up suspicious of a group that has behaved like a lethal enemy. "

Such suspicions, Cripps adds, have long informed African Americans' relationship with the white-dominated film industry. "That was the big fight of the NAACP, to get more positive images on screen. Better Sidney Poitier in 'Lilies of the Field.' "

Of course, the power of "Killer of Sheep" lies in the fact that it's not a parable of uplift like "Lilies of the Field," but neither is it "Shaft" or even "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song," the Melvin Van Peebles film that revolutionized American film culture in 1971, just before Burnett started filming. In that film, Van Peebles equated political action with hypersexuality, a notion that in itself is politically problematic. Stan, who in the film's final moments seems to be snapping out of his depressive torpor, doesn't hew to any stereotype, positive or negative.

Burnett explains that he was trying to demythologize working-class life. "Not like Hollywood movies, where something happens and you reach the rainbow. . . . You get a sense that Stan isn't going to change, [but] he's going to endure and he's going to survive. There's a resiliency there, a will to live." The moral of "Killer of Sheep," Burnett says, might be that, "as long as you have respect for life and a sense of who you are morally, [you're] a winner. But it's an ongoing struggle, and that's what life's about."

"The thing about Burnett's work is that it wasn't political with a capital P," says producer Nelson George, whose films include the documentary "The N-Word" and "Life Support." "To me, a naturalistic, humanistic film about African Americans is a political statement. So even now, it's a shock to the system." George also locates Burnett's poetic humanism in a unique place among black filmmakers. "Spike Lee is not a naturalistic filmmaker," he says. "He's a very stylized filmmaker. John Singleton was very much hip-hop-influenced, more than blues-influenced. The closest thing to [Burnett's films] may be the August Wilson plays."

New York Press film critic Armond White, a longtime champion of "Killer of Sheep," ventures to say that the question of why "all America" needs to see the film actually possesses some legitimacy. "That's a fair question she asked," he says of the festival-goer in Baltimore. "It seems to me her question is, 'Where did this serious movie come from and why are we being confronted with it now, in the age of escapism?' People have forgotten what used to be an accepted fact about movies, which is that they were works of art that reflected the human condition. That's what 'Killer of Sheep' is. But unfortunately, these days, audiences aren't used to movies that do that. So in a way, they are legitimately puzzled by it."

For Gerima, the late-in-coming arrival of "Killer of Sheep" is both a source of joy and pain: joy that a great work of art is finally having its day, and pain at the loss the 30-year wait represents in terms of Burnett's career.

Comparing his and Burnett's generation of filmmakers to such contemporaries as Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg, Gerima says, "We graduated into a desert. We didn't graduate into an infrastructure that embellished our experiments. To me, 'Killer of Sheep' is an incomplete experiment. It's an incomplete, imperfect experiment of Charles Burnett that was arrested by racism."

Burnett demurs. "We were working in opposition, to protest the films that Hollywood was producing about people of color. . . . So we never had that call or attraction to compromise our way of thinking about film. It was sort of like the blues in the sense that it was developed in isolation in many ways."

And if Burnett's career has not had the remuneration or recognition it has deserved, he for one isn't bitter. (He's currently editing the feature film "Nujoma," about Sam Nujoma, leader of the South West African People's Organization who became the first president of Namibia.) "I wish I had more money for my kids' college and stuff like that, but I look at it in relative terms," he says easily. "I'm not in Iraq and I managed to get my kids through college. It's a live-and-let-live kind of thing."

Says White, the film critic: "Haile has been in the struggle for so long, he has a right to feel bitter. But I'm so happy the film is out now, I don't feel bitter about it. Charles Burnett would not be the first filmmaker Hollywood did not embrace as it should have. This is the struggle that serious filmmakers face in an art form too many people confuse with commerce. Whenever their films do get out to the public, that's a cause for celebration."

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