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 célèbre for the lucky few who have actually seen it and a phantom masterpiece for everyone else.
Click here to read the rest of Chris Wisniewski’s piece on Charles Burnett’s masterpiece. And still more to come this weekend on Reverse Shot.