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Charles Burnett has made fewer than two dozen films since his directorial debut in 1969. That's a lot less than he's wanted, but it reflects the extra hurdles faced by African-American filmmakers in a white-dominated industry, especially when they're committed to authentic portrayals of three-dimensional black characters. It also reflects the independent spirit that keeps Burnett marching to his own drummer instead of kowtowing to Hollywood formulas. Unlike directors who see indie productions as passports to mainstream fame and fortune, he never strays for long from the subject that interests him most: life as it's really lived in everyday families, neighborhoods, and workplaces.
Challenges notwithstanding, Burnett has completed a number of unusually fine films. They include the 1990 family drama To Sleep with Anger, with Danny Glover as a shady character who barges into a family's quiet life; the 1994 drama The Glass Shield, about race and gender tensions in a Los Angeles police station; and the 1996 television movie Nightjohn, about a slave who breaks the law by teaching another slave how to read. Yet his most celebrated movie, the 1977 masterpiece Killer of Sheep, was extremely hard to see for many years, since licensing hassles over some of the soundtrack music drove it out of the marketplace soon after its premiere. Critics kept writing about it, keeping its reputation alive, and the Library of Congress placed it on the National Film Registry of historically important movies. Finally it was restored to mint condition by the Film & Television Archive at UCLA, where Burnett went to film school in the 1960s, and Milestone Films waged a six-year battle to clear those pesky music rights. The movie reached theaters in 2007, three decades after it was made, in exactly the form Burnett intended, except for a single tune on the soundtrack. And the reviews were rapturous.
Killer of Sheep has little in the way of a conventional plot, but much in the way of richly drawn characters and deeply atmospheric mood. Set in the Watts section of Los Angeles, it centers on Stan, the father of an inner-city family. Every day he goes to work in the slaughterhouse where he's employed, slogging through a depressing daily routine that's as psychologically deadly for him as it is physically deadly for the animals killed there. The rest of the time he tries to live with as much dignity as chronic poverty and exhaustion will allow, playing dominoes, fiddling with a car engine, passing the hours with his equally worn-out wife, playing with their little boy and girl. Nothing happens and everything happens. We're watching people whose personalities and experiences Burnett knows down to his bones, chronicled with a sense of unembellished truthfulness rarely found in American movies.
The presence of such authentic reality doesn't mean Killer of Sheep is a cinma-vrit documentary in disguise. Burnett began it by writing a screenplay and preparing storyboards that guided his work throughout the production. Then he photographed the action with an unfailing eye for visual poetry; edited it with keen attention to rhythm, contrast, and emotional flow; and assembled a music track that counterpoints the imagery like a gracefully attuned player in a jazz duo. The result is a carefully planned yet uniquely intuitive film that doesn't so much delineate a story as evoke a time, a place, and a set of circumstances with poignant, sometimes heartbreaking sensitivity.
Burnett's decision to make Killer of Sheep was prompted by his intense dissatisfaction with movies that treat working-class life simplistically, solving complicated human problems in unrealistic and unimaginative ways reuniting the couple, letting the team win, having the workers join a union so everyone can bask in a happy ending. Burnett isn't interested in simple solutions, or even complex ones, because in his experience most real-life problems aren't resolved at all; folks just muddle through as best they can, and when one difficulty fades there's usually another to take its place. "What people are really struggling for is to endure, to survive," Burnett once told me, "to become adults and maintain some sort of moral compass." This led him to design Killer of Sheep as a series of distinct episodes organized by their themes rather than a conventional three-act structure. Burnett doesn't claim to have answers for the social problems he shows, but he's eager to raise the important questions for as wide an audience as he can reach.
Burnett made Killer of Sheep in 16mm (the UCLA restoration is in 35mm) on a budget of less than $10,000, most of it from grants he received. Many critics have compared it with the films of Italian neorealists like Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica, whose stories recorded the harsh realities of postwar Italy during the 1940s and 1950s. Like them, Burnett wanted to create naturalistic scenes without losing sight of artistic style. Also like them, he turned to nonprofessional actors for important roles, choosing people who actually lived the kind of life depicted in the film. Their remarkably strong acting is one of the film's most striking assets.
A key reason why Burnett became a filmmaker in the first place was his conviction that movies made with enough skill and commitment can change how people think about the world. He is disgusted at Hollywood's use of negative African-American stereotypes, which he blames for creating a dehumanized image of the black community; even black filmmakers produce racist material at times, he believes, motivated by money and power instead of responsibility and ethics. His lifelong project is to reverse this trend, or at least do all he can to slow it down. Killer of Sheep is a vibrant step in this direction, even if it did take thirty years to reach the screen.
Producer: Charles Burnett
Director: Charles Burnett
Screenplay: Charles Burnett
Cinematographer: Charles Burnett
Film Editing: Charles Burnett
With: Henry Gayle Sanders (Stan), Kaycee Moore (Stan's wife), Charles Bracy (Bracy), Angela Burnett (Stan's daughter), Eugene Cherry (Eugene), Jack Drummond (Stan's son).
by David Sterritt