In the years since Killer of Sheep, Burnett's made several mangled or unreleased commercial productions, a number of striking telefilms on African American history, and one fully realized, exceedingly unusual, and underappreciated feature, the 1990 To Sleep with Anger. Given this stoical tenacity, it's hard not to see Stan as a prophetic projection of the filmmaker.
In retrospect it can be seen that the two great independent features of the late '70s were Killer of Sheep and Eraserhead. Perhaps when someone writes the reception history of American independent cinema, it will be explained how and when Killer of Sheep—which had its original screenings at museums or underground showcases—came to be considered not just a good but a great movie, placed on the Library of Congress's National Film Registry in 1990.
This bitter earth: Henry G. Sanders in 'Killer of Sheep'
Clearly foreign film festivals had something to do with it—the movie won a prize at Berlin in 1981—as did the various black film series that booked it for years. It's striking that, as a 16mm production, Killer of Sheep first appeared in the context of avant-garde cinema. When it opened in New York in November 1978, as part of the Whitney Museum's ongoing New American Filmmakers series, the New York Times saw it as a study in "monotony and alienation," and scored the filmmaker's "arty detachment."
That apparently was the movie's lone notice. The closest Killer of Sheep received to a review in the Village Voice was the listings blurb filed by a callow part-time third-stringer, Hoberman:
Charles Burnett calls his well-observed first feature, made with non-actors in Watts, an ethnographic film. More a succession of linked images and anecdotes than a narrative, its power is in its accumulation of details and gesture. Burnett withholds judgment on his scuffling, self-absorbed characters, using a score that runs the gamut from Paul Robeson to Dinah Washington to Big Boy Crudup to comment on their lives. His hero works in a slaughterhouse but the film leaves little doubt that the real "killer of sheep" is America.
I hadn't seen the movie again until recently. As fresh and observational as it was 30 years ago, Killer of Sheep seems even more universal now. Today, I'd change my blurb to note that the killer of sheep isn't only America, but life.