KILLER OF SHEEP - A Film By Charles Burnett


Charles BurnettBorn in Vicksburg, Mississippi on April 13, 1944, Charles Burnett moved with his family to the Watts area of Los Angeles at an early age. He describes the community of having a strong mythical connection with the South as a result of having so many Southern transplants, an atmosphere which has informed much of his work.

Burnett first studied as an electrician but soon became bored with the idea of making this his career and went to UCLA, where he earned his Masters of Fine Arts in Filmmaking. There, he was greatly influenced by professors Elyseo Taylor—creator of the Ethno-Communications department—and Basil Wright—the English documentarian famous for Night Mail and Songs of Ceylon. He became fast friends with fellow future greats like Haile Gerima (Sankofa), and Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust), collaborating with them and others on a number of projects. Burnett cites Jean Renoir, Satyajit Ray, and Sidney Lumet (The Pawnbroker) as important influences.

In 1988, Burnett was awarded the prestigious John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship (also known as the "genius grant"), which helped him support his young family and concentrate on his newest script. With Danny Glover parlaying his recent success in Lethal Weapon, they wrangled funding for the production of Burnett's To Sleep With Anger.

Glover, playing a vaguely supernatural Southern trickster overstaying his welcome while visiting family, found perhaps his most critically acclaimed role. It won the 1991 Independent Spirit Awards for Best Director and Best Screenplay for Burnett and Best Actor for Glover. The Library of Congress also selected this film for its prestigious National Film Registry.

The National Society of Film Critics honored Burnett for best screenplay for To Sleep With Anger, making him the first African American to win in this category in the group's 25-year history. While the Los Angeles Times reported that Burnett's movie reminded viewers of Anton Chekov, Time magazine wrote: "If Spike Lee's films are the equivalent of rap music — urgent, explosive, profane, then Burnett's movie is good, old urban blues." The film also received a Special Jury Recognition Award at the 1990 Sundance Film Festival and a Special Award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. Both Burnett and Glover were nominated for New York Film Critics Circle Awards.

In 1997, the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival honored Burnett with a retrospective, Witnessing For Everyday Heroes, presented at New York's Walter Reade Theater of Lincoln Center.

Burnett has been awarded grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts and the J. P. Getty Foundation. He is also the winner of the American Film Institute's Maya Deren Award, and one of the very few people ever to be honored with Howard University's Paul Robeson Award for achievement in cinema. The Chicago Tribune has called him "one of America's very best filmmakers" and the New York Times named him "the nation's least-known great filmmaker and most gifted black director."

Burnett has even had a day named after him — the mayor of Seattle declared February 20, 1997 as Charles Burnett Day. Burnett recently directed a documentary on Nat Turner and one chapter of the six-part documentary, The Blues, a production of Martin Scorsese's CPA Productions with Off-Line Entertainment. His latest feature is Nujoma: Where Others Wavered, shot in Namibia.

Charles Burnett lives west of Watts with his wife, costume designer Gaye Burnett. They have two sons.

"I don't think I'm capable of answering problems that have been here for many years. But I think the best I can do is present them in a way where one wants to solve these problems." — Charles Burnett


"Burnett is one of film's poets. His extraordinary lyric gifts and strikingly humanistic imagery are abundantly present. It shouldn't be missed...A flat-out treasure, impervious to time."