Killer of Sheep

(Milestone Films)

In 1990, this paper put Los Angeles filmmaker Charles Burnett on its cover to mark the release of his finely etched domestic drama To Sleep With Anger, in which Danny Glover played a blowhard Southern stranger who shows up to ruffle the feathers of a tight-knit but troubled Watts family. The movie played poorly even among black audiences, whose sole nourishment at the time came from made-in-Hollywood blaxploitation movies. Burnett’s 1977 thesis film, Killer of Sheep, made when he was a student at UCLA film school, was greeted with acclaim at festivals and placed — a rare honor — on the Library of Congress Film Registry, but never got a proper release, in part because of the prohibitive cost of getting release rights for the songs on its plaintively bluesy soundtrack. Now, beautifully restored from its original 16 mm to a full 35 mm by the school’s Film and Television Archive, Killer of Sheep finally gets its long-overdue moment in the sun, courtesy of executive producer Steven Soderbergh and indie distributor Milestone Films, and it is not to be missed. To be sure, the film, which was shot for a minuscule $10,000 in Watts with a mostly amateur cast, has its influences in Italian neo-realism, in Jean Renoir’s The Southerner and in a variety of documentary traditions. But Killer of Sheep feels like a virgin work in the best sense, an impressionistic awakening to the possibilities of film and of life as it tracks the days of Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), a ghetto dreamer mired in poverty and gathering ennui. The movie’s central metaphor — the abattoir where Stan works slaughtering sheep and being spiritually slaughtered by his dead-end prospects — is handled with the lightest of touches as Burnett’s restless camera follows Stan and his family from one quotidian scene to the next, eking out both Stan’s depression and the solace he takes in his family in moments — playing cards, caressing his cheek with a teacup, dancing with his loving but bewildered wife (Kaycee Moore) to Dinah Washington’s This Bitter Earth, while his little daughter, like children everywhere, creates her own little world from the materials available. Whether you see the last scene as a victory for Stan or his final defeat, it’s impossible not to partake in Burnett’s delight in the domestic, or in his celebration of an art that finds God in the details.

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