Way ahead of its time 30 years ago, and just as stunning today, Killer of Sheep is one of those marvels of original moviemaking that keeps hope of artistic independence alive. Charles Burnett wrote, directed, produced, shot, and edited the black-and-white film on a shoestring and submitted it for his UCLA graduate thesis in 1977. His players were friends, neighbors, and, in the case of the lead, an actor he met in an elevator. And in 1990, his movie was among the first to be listed in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry as a work of great cultural significance. Out of vignettes of daily life in Los Angeles’ impoverished Watts ghetto, stitched together with a golden thread of blues, jazz, pop, classical music, and even the cathedral voice of Paul Robeson singing ”The House I Live In,” Burnett creates a vivid, angry, compassionately real picture of mid-’70s African-American life.
Of course, it has taken three decades for anyone other than a lucky festivalgoer or collegiate film society member to catch a rare noncommercial screening, for reasons to be explained shortly. But never mind: What matters is that this rare gem is now being released, with the polish of devoted restoration from UCLA film preservationists. And the legend of the movie’s importance has not been oversold.
What we see is drab in landscape, but beautiful nonetheless: Boys throw rocks and pummel each other out of restlessness (and a couple of them casually steal a TV set); a little girl sings to her doll (and wears, for a time, a droopy-dog mask of unsettling opacity); a poor neighborhood gets by, but for how long? Lack of opportunity matches up with lack of vista, for this is a landscape of American inner-city nothingness, where discontent steeps along with the cups of tea shared, in one scene, by a couple of working men. One of them, Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders, his face a map of sadness), wears himself out with the insomnia of the defeated as he tries to provide for his wife (Kaycee Moore) and two children. (The wife, a beauty who takes pains with her fine looks, is hot for her man, but he’s too dead tired to want her back.) Stan is an actual killer of sheep, laboring in a businesslike slaughterhouse, and the filmmaker captures the activity with tender respect for the men employed as well as the animals put to death. But the picture circles the questions: Who are the real lambs of God? And whose spirits are being killed?
Why hasn’t Killer of Sheep been properly released until now? Burnett, who went on to make To Sleep With Anger, starring Danny Glover in 1990, never envisioned his student film (shot on 16 millimeter, sometimes in iffy light) to have a commercial life, and clearing the rights to the music has taken decades. Decades. Here’s to the miracle of a buried classic granted the opposite of a killing — here’s to life.