Killer of Sheep (1978)

Killer of Sheep (1978) movie poster

director Charles Burnett
viewed: 08/01/2015

Some years ago, around 2007 I believe, Charles Burnett’s 1978 film Killer of Sheep emerged from obscurity into a theatrical release and pretty ubiquitous praise.  I’ve had it on my Netflix queue probably all this time.

The film was Burnett’s Master of Fine Arts thesis at the School of Film at UCLA and was shot over a period of years in the 1970’s.  The reason the film languished in obscurity had to do with soundtrack licensing.  It’s wide-ranging musical accompaniment stretched gamuts of African American music from the earliest of recordings to contemporary ones.  It was Steven Soderbergh who helped finance the acquisition of the musical rights and the transfer of the film from 16mm to 35mm.  And a legend was made known.

The film is very much a time capsule, an image from the Watts section of Los Angeles, shot with great naturalism inspired by Italian Neorealism and featuring mostly, if not all, non-professional actors.  Somewhat episodic in nature, it has indeed an aspect of documentary, with a rich humanistic eye, depicting the poor of LA’s African American neighborhood.

It is a rich and unusual film, and having emerged from obscurity and onto many lists of great American films, I’m guessing that its place in American cinema is still evolving.  I can imagine this would be a great film in a film class.

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