Resurrecting Charles Burnett’s Classic 1970s Film Killer of Sheep
Witnessing the Real Watts
The 1970s have long been regarded as the golden age of contemporary American cinema. Dozens of classics, from Annie Hall to Mean Streets, were produced by maverick directors both within and outside the studio system. Of all the great American films of the 1970s, none has earned a more exalted and esoteric reputation among fans of independent film than Charles Burnett’s debut, Killer of Sheep.
Shot on location in Watts in 1972 and 1973, Killer of Sheep was made as an MFA thesis at UCLA Film School for less than $10,000. For decades, the film’s word of mouth grew among indie aficionados as it remained unavailable for distribution due to the high cost of licensing the music on its all-star (Dinah Washington; Earth, Wind & Fire; Louis Armstrong; George Gershwin) soundtrack. Finally, last year, the UCLA Film & Television Archive and boutique film distributor Milestone Films took up the task of clearing those rights and painstakingly restoring this 16mm film before blowing it up to 35mm for theatrical release. In addition, Milestone has released a special DVD version containing many extras, including rare Burnett shorts Several Friends (1969), The Horse (1973), and When It Rains (1995). UCSB Arts & Lectures will screen the newly restored 35mm print of Killer of Sheep on Wednesday, October 24, in Campbell Hall.
Seeing the great black-and-white 16mm films of the 1960s and 1970s in a theater today is almost impossibly romantic; as they age, they acquire an aura of authenticity that cannot be duplicated in the digital era. Killer of Sheep has the feel of a Los Angeles answer to the nouvelle vague of early Truffaut and Godard or even the cinema verite documentaries of Jean Rouch. Burnett confessed he is somewhat surprised by all the attention now, 30 years after the film was made, explaining, “It wasn’t supposed to be shown theatrically at all. That was never the idea. It was made as a reaction to the kind of films that got distribution, and all I really imagined for it at the time was a small audience of activists watching the film together at meetings.”
The story is disjunctive, following the adventures of a hard-working slaughterhouse employee named Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), but at an alienating distance, mirroring in its structure Stan’s own lack of affect. We see him with his wife (Kaycee Moore) and his daughter (played by Angela Burnett, the director’s child), but he appears exhausted and almost morose much of the time. When two friends arrive at his house and offer to include him in their plans for a robbery, Stan refuses, but the negativity and economic hopelessness of his environment linger in their wake. Later in the film, a makeshift deal involving a used car engine ends when the big hunk of metal hops off the bed of a moving pickup truck, fracturing its block to the strains of Louis Armstrong’s “West End Blues.”
Yet Killer of Sheep, despite its setting and themes, contains some of the most rapturous images in all of cinema. A dangerous children’s game of jumping from roof to roof provides Burnett with a waterfall of spectacular images that show play in its most pure form. In another scene, two young boys stand on their heads, seemingly seeking an inverted world in which to grow strong and avoid the confusion and desolation of poverty. The dialogue, much of it apparently improvised, is as gritty and uncompromising as anything that Spike Lee or John Singleton could come up with 15 years later. Both Kaycee Moore and Henry Gayle Sanders speak searing monologues that explore the depths of their characters’ respective psyches without ever feeling studied, or even premeditated. Killer of Sheep is stunning in its continuous presentation of the immediacy of real life, and, if the sound and picture are inconsistent at times, chalk that up to the fact that the crew was often composed of the young extras, some of them barely into their teens, who populate the street scenes.
Burnett credits the impetus for the restoration to Milestone cofounder Dennis Doros, who got Ross Lipman, UCLA’s resident genius of film preservation and restoration, involved. Doros saw indie commercial potential where Burnett tended to see something else. As Burnett told me, “I enjoy black-and-white a lot, but it can be hard for me to watch Killer of Sheep over and over again at this point. I still believe in what I did with it, but all I see are the mistakes, places where it’s not right or not what I intended. I planned out all the shots-the over-the-shoulder stuff, the various angles-but with this medium of 16mm and with kids as a crew, it can be hard to get a good picture lock. The whole thing was really created as a kind of anti-Hollywood statement, so it is a bit ironic that people are going to be watching it in theaters now.”
Burnett has done many remarkable films since then, including the multiple award-winning feature, To Sleep with Anger, starring Danny Glover, in 1990. One of his most endearing efforts is Nightjohn, an ante-bellum plantation tale he made for Disney television in 1996. When asked about this other somewhat neglected gem, Burnett reminisced, “That was one interesting shoot. I worked with writer Bill Cain on the script, and he was a Jesuit priest, but you should have heard the language that came out of that man’s mouth. He was as free in his speech as a sailor.”
Since the 1990s, Burnett has become increasingly international in his interests and scope. Later this year he will release Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation with Carl Lumbly in the lead as activist president Sam Nujoma. The feature was shot on location in Namibia. A second African film, Red Soil, is underway now.
In the meantime, viewers can journey back in time with Killer of Sheep at UCSB on Wednesday. And if that doesn’t sate your appetite for the work of this African-American idol, consider a trip to Los Angeles for the Saturday, October 27, double feature that pairs Killer of Sheep with 1983’s My Brother’s Wedding, another previously unreleased Burnett film. That show is at the Billy Wilder Theater on the courtyard level of the UCLA Hammer Museum.
Killer of Sheep screens at UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Wednesday, October 24, at 7:30 p.m. Call 893-3535 or see artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.