Though its film stock had nearly turned to vinegar by the time UCLA stepped in with a timely restoration, Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep is of a vintage that only gets better with age. Its neorealist approach to the life of a neighborhood is rich, but the surprise is that it's also as fresh as the day it was made 30 years ago. It's difficult to locate a single visual or narrative cliché in the story of a slaughterhouse worker's alienation amongst a family and neighborhood bustling with hopes and hijinks. That may be because the daily lives of African Americans have rarely been treated with the low-fi soulfulness of the cinema vérité -style lens.
The humor in Killer of Sheep - including the physical comedy of falling objects and children in motion - is never box-office laugh-out-loud funny, the way mainstream films cut with demographics in mind tend to be. Though never precious or faux sophisticated, the camera in this debut feature film settles peacefully into the morose ennui of an international festival circuit film.
Strange, then, that it wasn't discovered in that circuit. As Burnett recalls, it opened to some 10 African American community centers and at least one church in the late 70s, played via PBS a couple of times, and hit mostly campus movie theaters intermittently. It may be the most auspicious first film to never quite reach its larger audiences. Of course, by now, Burnett doesn't have to worry about popular opinion: His awards include a MacArthur "genius" grant, a listing of Killer of Sheep in the Library of Congress National Film Registry, a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, and a couple of Independent Spirit Awards. But what really separates Burnett from other film auteurs is the true eclecticism in his catalogue.
Milestone Film and Video - the company that secured the music rights for the film (with the help of Steven Soderbergh) and encouraged the UCLA restoration of the work, and who's releasing it theatrically this spring and on DVD along with My Brother's Wedding (1983) this fall - lists a few other lesser known Burnett classics as well: The Horse (1973), a startling film short with animals at the altar, the South Central-based Killer of Sheep precursor Several Friends (1969), and a piece of whimsical community-based fiction that feels more like an agitdoc, When It Rains (1995). To take a trip through the more crossover-appealing works in Burnett's filmography is a dizzying experience in topical shifts, with the folklore-enhanced To Sleep with Anger (1990), the interracial police drama The Glass Shield (1994), and a Disney-made project on literacy and slavery, Nightjohn (1996), among them.
I got a chance to speak with Burnett over the phone from Los Angeles, a few weeks before Killer of Sheep itself celebrates a milestone with the help of a film company that goes by the same name. I took the opportunity to grill Burnett not so much on the films that made it to major festivals and television in the past few decades, but the more personal collection housed at Milestone and recently saved by UCLA.
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