Over the past three decades, Charles Burnett's "Killer of Sheep" has become the stuff of cinephile legend. Shot on location in Watts, Los Angeles, mostly with amateur actors, Burnett's 16mm student-film never received a theatrical release, in part because of the substantial cost involved with clearing its music rights. Despite occasional screenings at festivals and museums in the 30 years since it was finished, "Killer of Sheep" has been nearly impossible for most people to see, theatrically or otherwise, but those who managed to track the film down have been vocal in their praise. A few years after finishing his second feature, "My Brother's Wedding," Burnett won a MacArthur genius grant, and in 1990, the National Film Preservation Board selected "Killer of Sheep" for inclusion on the National Film Registry - honoring the rather obscure entry alongside such venerable American classics as "The Great Train Robbery," "Fantasia," and "The Godfather." Yet its reputation as a great film has continued to be just that - a reputation - as "Killer of Sheep" has remained a cause celebre for the lucky few who have actually seen it and a phantom masterpiece for everyone else.
Now that "Killer of Sheep" has finally made its way into theaters in a restored, enlarged 35mm print, it is, without qualification or equivocation, essential viewing for anyone who cares about the cinema as an art form. Still, I worry about the outsized expectations that come with thirty years of buildup and the inevitable "it was good, but..." lobby conversations that will surely follow, and I'm loath to simply heap more praise upon it - not that it doesn't deserve it, but because the film's brilliance is so singular and modest. In a moviegoing culture that valorizes the contrived self-importance of "Crash" and the glib indie "charm" of "Little Miss Sunshine," "Killer of Sheep" feels resolutely other, fashioned with an observational, almost verite aesthetic, a loose, episodic narrative, and a complicated, unsentimentalized approach to class, race, and family. Chronologically, it may split the difference between Italian neorealism and Sundance, but cinematically its affinities rest squarely with the former.
Even when Burnett first made "Killer of Sheep," it was refreshingly out-of-step with the mainstream American filmmaking of the time. "Killer" strikes a startling contrast with the blaxploitation films of the early to mid 70s, presenting a corrective to their distorted depiction of black masculinity. Its protagonist, Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), is a slaughterhouse worker who suffers from insomnia and struggles day to day to provide for his wife and children. No smooth-talking detective or renegade outlaw he, Stan exudes quiet dignity and determination, whether he's scheming to make a bit of money off of a motor or quietly resisting the advances of a grotesquely forward shop owner; he feels human and real in a way that Shaft or even Sweetback never did, though Burnett's film offers little by way of explicit psychological or narrative context for the character and never grafts a false arc onto his experiences.
"Killer of Sheep" is structured around the repetition of images - children playing in the ghetto, sheep being led to the slaughter - repetitions which serve to visually literalize the pervasive sense of narrative stasis. There are small successes and disappointments along the way, but the film leaves things much as it finds them. This is, after all, observational realism, a film that lingers on small and simple moments. It's tempting to invoke "the poetry of the everyday" in describing "Killer of Sheep," just as it's easy to compare it to neorealism or verite, but Burnett's haunting visual motifs and his splendid use of music, at once ironic and hopeful, give the film an almost dreamlike texture. In these moments "Killer of Sheep" transcends its realist aesthetic, and, in this transcendence, achieves something heartbreaking and sublime.
[Chris Wisniewski is a Reverse Shot staff writer, a regular contributor to Publishers Weekly, and education coordinator at the Museum of the Moving Image.]