Held up in legalities, “Killer of Sheep” emerges thirty years later

“Killer of Sheep” was shot on 16mm on a minimal budget of $5,000 using non-actors and children from the director’s neighborhood of Watts, Calif. Although the film was completed in 1973, it was first screened in 1977 as Burnett’s UCLA graduate thesis and then the film had a brief stint touring colleges and festivals.

Since March, the recently restored and newly transferred 35mm print of the film has been playing in various cities, colleges and festivals in over 145 locations, including the University of Miami. Sponsored by UM’s Black Filmmakers Association, “Killer of Sheep” was followed with a Q&A session with lead actor Henry Gayle Sanders.

During the film’s recent tour there has been a resurgence of interest for the “forgotten masterpiece” and accolades from various film critics. Why would a film so highly revered be unknown to many film viewers?

“Charles [Burnett] never intended the film to be distributed nationwide. He only wanted to make it as a political discussion piece on black communities. Colleges and festivals were enough for him,” Amy Heller from [position title?-JA] Milestone Distribution said.

Colleges and festivals were the only places the film could screen because of copyright issues with music used in the film. As a result, “Killer of Sheep” was unable to acquire wider distribution. Although Burnett was happy with keeping the film in obscurity, associates at Milestone Distribution felt that a film of this caliber should be accessible to a larger audience. With the help of many filmmakers at both UCLA and USC, including a generous $75,000 donation from “Ocean’s Eleven” director Steven Soderbergh, all of the 18 music track rights were cleared up. From there the film was given a second chance for an audience both young and old who were unable to view it thirty years prior.

But it wasn’t just the film’s unlicensed music that kept the film out of the Hollywood limelight. Sanders, who played the melancholic lamb butcher Stan, said the film was self-consciously anti-Hollywood.

“I don’t remember if Charles had a script.he just wanted the actors to act naturally, he’d tell us what he wanted and we would do it. He wanted to show a contrast with the stereotypical black portrayal in Hollywood.”

Charles Burnett envisioned the film as a gritty fictional documentary that could show a more accurate and shameless depiction of lower-middle class black communities. His characters appear unrelated to the camera; they go about their daily lives without extreme drama or pretense. Instead of groovy music, hit men, prostitutes and cars, “Killer of Sheep” shows two friends carrying a car battery down the stairs, a couple dancing by the window, work in a slaughterhouse and child’s play with fake fighting and rocks thrown at trains.

The film is not for everybody. Though the story’s themes are gripping and each shot of the film is beautifully composed and poetic, “Killer of Sheep” lacks a strong narrative. The film doesn’t follow the Hollywood mold of act structure and dramatic protagonists, but instead is assembled like a free verse poem of vignettes, images and commonplace actions. The film works, as Burnett intended, as a discussion piece where the meaning and importance comes after the fact.

Tim Novak may be contacted at t.novak1@umiami.edu.