With a mostly amateur cast (consisting of Burnett's friends and acquaintances), much handheld camera work, episodic narrative and gritty documentary-style cinematography, Killer of Sheep has been compared by film critics and scholars to Italian neorealist films like Vittorio De Sica's The Bicycle Thief and Roberto Rossellini's Paisan. However, Burnett cites Basil Wright's Songs of Ceylon and Night Mail and Jean Renoir's The Southerner as his main influences.
In 1981, Killer of Sheep received the Critic's Award at the Berlin International Film Festival. In 1990, the Library of Congress declared it a national treasure and placed it among the first 50 films entered in the National Film Registry for its historical significance. In 2002, the National Society of Film Critics selected the film as one of the 100 Essential Films of all time.
Despite these accolades, the film never saw popular distribution due to the expense and complication of the music rights (including songs by Etta James, Dinah Washington, Gershwin, Rachmaninov, Paul Robeson and Earth, Wind & Fire on the soundtrack) and in its rare viewings at festivals and museums it was shown on ragged 16mm prints. Now, thirty years later, the new 35mm print, restored by UCLA Film & Television Archive, is ready for its long-awaited theatrical release.
Killer of Sheep had previously existed only in rough 16mm copies, and the 35mm blow-up restoration better renders the beautiful quality of Charles' lovely in-the-street cinematography. One of the genuine privileges of doing this work at UCLA is that we're able to apply the best technical resources in LA to a small, low-budget production that would never otherwise benefit from such treatment. But despite the access to high-end resources, we made great efforts to preserve exactly the rough quality of the original, so as not to alter the work. Especially careful attention was given to image contrast and tonality, to carefully bring out the best aspects of the original negative. We're indebted to Film Technology Company for their excellent lab work. We also, with the help of John Polito of Audio Mechanics, conducted close and judicious work on the "verite-like" soundtrack, which was often recorded by the many kids who appear in the film.
--Ross Lipman, preservationist at UCLA Film & Television Archive, has been responsible for the restoration of the films of John Cassavetes, John Sayles, and Kenneth Anger. He is currently working on Word Is Out and The Exiles.
THE ACTOR, HENRY GAYLE SANDERS
While injured in the service, he had written an autobiographical novel called What Love Has Joined Together, and he resolved to move to either New York or Los Angeles to try to sell it. In the end, he chose Los Angeles ("I figured if I was going to be broke, I might as well be broke and warm.") where he adapted his novel into a play. As part of his own "self-actualization" program, he studied cinema at Los Angeles City College and took related courses at UCLA under the G.I. Bill.
It is around this time that Sanders got into acting. "That's when I began to see where my strengths were," he says, "Ultimately all of these things gave me my center. And whatever trauma I may have gone through, everything comes to bear on my work in fruitful way." Sanders' long list of films and television credits includes the 2006 film Rocky Balboa, a recurring role on Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, and guest appearances on Cagney and Lacey, Knots Landing, Perry Mason, Matlock, Murder She Wrote, ER, Miami Vice, NYPD Blue, The West Wing, and Joan of Arcadia. He lives in Los Angeles where he is currently directing a play about the Amistad trial entitled A Providential Occurrence.
THE ACTRESS, KAYCEE MOORE
In 1991, filmmaker Julie Dash, wowed by Moore's performance in Killer of Sheep—particularly the improvised scene in which she is yelling at the characters Smoke and Scooter on the front porch—cast Moore in her 1991 film Daughters of the Dust. After filming, Moore returned to Kansas City to continue her work fighting Sickle Cell Disease. In 1994, she shared the screen with the likes of Isaac Hayes and Martin Sheen in a Kansas City independent film Ninth Street, adapted from a play of the same name. She continues to work at the Kansas City SCDAA as a grant writer and has finished a screenplay entitled Track 14, a historical drama about the Kansas City area.
Other directors at UCLA at this time were Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust, 1991), Haile Gerima (Sankofa, 1993), Billy Woodbury (Bless Their Little Hearts, 1984), and Larry Clark (Passing Through, 1977). Burnett himself was the cinematographer for Gerima's Bush Mama (1979), worked crew and camera and edited Dash's Illusions (1982) and wrote the script and shot Woodbury's Bless Their Little Hearts. Another notable figure is UCLA professor Elyseo Taylor, who started the school's Ethno-Communications department, a program focused on the study and production of films by people of color.
Many of the films that were being made at the time by this peer group have been compared by film critics and scholars to Italian neorealist films of the 40's, the Third World cinema of the 60's and 70's, and the Iranian New Wave of the 90's. A major thematic thread that runs through many of the films is a critical response to White Hollywood and Blaxploitation. "We needed the spectrum," says Burnett, "the full range of the black experience."
"Killer of Sheep is one of the most striking debuts in movie history and an acknowledged landmark in African-American film."
"Killer of Sheep represents the highest example of contemporary black American life put on screen because of Burnett's integrity to view it purely, without typical corrupted Hollywood devices."
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