It’s hard to believe there was a time when Killer of Sheep wasn’t widely recognized as a canonical work. The operative word however, is widely: it got great reviews from its moment of premiere in 1978. So why the recognition gap? In some ways it’s a story that parallels the film itself: it simply lacked the cultural benefits of more privileged contemporary productions. Killer of Sheep was made on shoestring while writer/director Charles Burnett was still a student at UCLA, studying under luminaries including Basil Wright and Elyseo Taylor. Despite the looming presence of Hollywood, Burnett found inspiration in the Italian Neorealist films he saw in class, and defying expectations, adapted the department’s resources to tell tales of a previously undocumented America: everyday lives amongst the black community he knew in East Los Angeles.
But just as the film’s subjects were in a sense ghetto-ized, so was the film. Without funds available music rights couldn’t be cleared, and the film spent several decades as highly lauded marginalia. I first saw it in a poor-quality 16mm print in the mid 1980’s: the only way it could be seen at the time. The picture was soft and the dialogue muffled, leaving me with the memory of a feeling as much as anything else. It wasn’t till I was fortunate to restore the film for the UCLA Film & Television Archive in the early 2000’s – when improved laboratory techniques allowing Burnett’s brilliant photography and dialogue to emerge – that I realized its true genius. The visionary team at Milestone Films concurred, going through Herculean battles to clear the music rights, and launched its first international 35mm release in 2007, a full thirty years after its completion.
Suddenly wide audiences throughout the world were seeing scenes that have since been etched forever in our collective memory: young children filmed from below as the leap across the gap between tenement rooftops; a hard-won car engine teetering precariously on the edge of a departing truck, the sad lonely dance of slaughterhouse worker Henry Sanders and his wife, Kaycee Moore.
Upon the restoration’s premiere, I was occasionally fortunate to present the film with Charles in attendance, and would introduce him not as one of America’s “great black directors” but rather as one of the “great American directors.” It’s true he’s spent a career championing black lives in his storytelling, but I always felt the former term was not enough, and implied a privileging the work decried. Now I think it’s probably time to omit the true but limiting American descriptor as well: he’s simply one of “the world’s great directors.”