Frequently described as a homegrown heir to Italian neorealism, Charles Burnett is widely acclaimed as the greatest of all African American filmmakers by people quite aware of Spike Lee. So why is it you've probably never heard of Burnett's Killer of Sheep (1977), let alone seen it?
There are many reasons for Burnett's marginalization, starting with the fact that he's a poet of extraordinary subtlety in a culture that cherishes neither the poetic nor subtle. He is, moreover, a subtle black poet who speaks of African American experience in fresh, complex terms. On top of these obstacles to popular acclaim, Killer of Sheep, a stirring and sophisticated evocation of working-class Watts, is scored to a terrific unauthorized pop soundtrack, the unsecured rights to which have restricted its public screenings.
"It was never intended to be shown theatrically," Burnett explains from his home in Los Angeles. "It was shown in the community and to people interested in social problems, but there wasn't the sort of distribution and marketing then that there is now. The idea of it being in theaters back then would be like going to the moon!"
Times may have changed, but Burnett remains something of a cult figure, even as his masterly debut is poised to reach its first widespread public. Meticulously restored at the UCLA Film and Television Archive, a new print of Killer of Sheep has been touring the art-house circuit and will play at Lagoon Cinema for a week starting Friday. The project is a six-year labor of love for its distributor, Milestone Films. "Killer of Sheep has always been one of those movies considered impossible to release," says Milestone co-founder Dennis Doros, "and to finally achieve it means a lot to us. It's a film that we've always loved."
"I was a little shocked when I got a call from Dennis saying it was on 35mm and restored and coming out and everything," says the star of the film, Henry Gayle Sanders. As Stan, a family man whose job at the local slaughterhouse lends the movie some of its richest images and most heartbreaking metaphors, Sanders leads an inspired naturalistic ensemble, whose ease on camera is richly harmonized with Burnett's quotidian poetics. "It's just a simple slice-of-life kind of movie," says Sanders, "and you didn't see many of those at the time. I don't think it was something anyone had ever seen before."
"I was responding to the way people were making films about the working class, giving simple solutions to complex problems," Burnett elaborates. "Without injecting my own personal feelings about what the solutions might be, I wanted to show how things really might be to live there." Killer of Sheep actor Charles Bracy puts its plainer: "We just wanted to make a quality film for all types of people." That's as fine an ambition as they come.