Killer of Sheep (1978): Second Look at Charles Burnett’s Masterpiece

Charles Burnett wrote, produced, and directed Killer of Sheep, one of the most brilliant features debuts in the history of American cinema.

Shot primarily in 1972 and 1973, it was originally submitted by Burnett to the UCLA School of Film in 1977 as his Master of Fine Arts thesis.

It features Henry G. Sanders, Kaycee Moore, and Charles Bracy, among others, in acting roles.

Using a neorealistic style, the film depicts a world that was then unknown to most American viewers: a slice of life, a sub-culture of urban African-Americans in Los Angeles’ Watts district.

There are no acts, plot arcs or character development, as conventionally defined, but rather a series of loosely but poignantly connected vignettes.

Killer of Sheep premiered at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York on November 14, 1978. It did not receive wide release because Burnett had not secured rights to the music used in its production. The music rights were purchased in 2007 for US $150,000 and the film was restored and transferred from a 16mm to a 35mm print.

Killer of Sheep received a limited release 30 years after it was completed, with a DVD release in late 2007.

Narrative

The protagonist, Stan, is a young middle-aged man who works long hours at a slaughterhouse in Watts, Los Angeles. The monotonous slaughter affects his home life with his wife and his two children, Stan Jr. and Angela.

The text unfolds as a series of episodic events:-friends try to involve Stan in a criminal plot, a white woman propositions Stan to work in her store, and Stan and his friend Bracy attempt to buy a car engine.

End result is a mosaic of an austere working-class life, in which Stan feels alienated as he is unable to affect the course of his life.

Directed by Charles Burnett, Killer of Sheep was shot in Watts on a budget of less than $10,000 ($45,000 in 2022) over roughly a year of weekends in 1972 and 1973, with additional shooting in 1975.

In 1977, Burnett submitted the film as his Master of Fine Arts thesis at the School of Film at the UCLA. Burnett said he also intended to make the film a history of African-American music and filled it with music from various genres and different eras.

One scene shows a low-angle shot of children leaping from rooftop to rooftop, as if suggesting that children in the film achieve–or try to achieve–mobility that eludes their elders.

Though the film won the Critics’ Award at the Berlin Film Fest and was acclaimed at the Toronto Fest, it never got wide release due to complications in securing the music rights for the songs on the soundtrack, which included Dinah Washington, Paul Robeson, Louis Armstrong, and Earth, Wind and Fire.

It remained in obscurity for nearly 30 years, garnering much critical and academic praise and earning a reputation.

The film did not win an award until four years after it came out, after having to wait four years to be released.

Critics and scholars have likened the film to the work of Italian neorealist directors, Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini, for its documentary aesthetic and use of non-professional actors.

Burnett has also been compared to Yasujirō Ozu for his strong sense of composition, Cassavetes for his knack for coaxing natural performances from amateur actors, and Altman for his interest in the minutiae of human interaction.

Burnett’s self-professed influences are Jean Renoir, Basil Wright, and Fellini, all of whom exemplify the tender, humane and compassionate qualities for which Burnett has been praised.

Critical Status:

In 2008, Empire magazine ranked the film No. 398 of The 500 Greatest Movies of All Time.

The National Society of Film Critics chose Killer of Sheep as one of its 100 Essential Films.

In 1990, the Library of Congress selected it for preservation in the US National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

In 2015 the BBC named it the 26th greatest American movie ever made.

The 16mm print was restored and enlarged to 35mm by the UCLA Film and Television Archive and Milestone Films, thanks to donation from Soderbergh.

On March 30, 2007, it opened in select theaters in the US, and on November 13, 2007, it was released on DVD as part of box set with director’s cut of Burnett’s sophomore feature My Brother’s Wedding and three Burnett shorts: Several Friends (a 1969 aesthetic precursor to Killer of Sheep), The Horse (an “allegory of the South”), and When It Rains.

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, January 21, 2008, TCM presented the premiere of the film as part of marathon of Burnett’s work.

Cast
Henry G. Sanders as Stan
Kaycee Moore as Stan’s wife
Charles Bracy as Bracy
Angela Burnett as Stan’s daughter
Eugene Cherry as Eugene
Jack Drummond as Stan’s son