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The story behind Charles Burnett’s 1977 film Killer of Sheep—its domestic release 30 years in the making—is nearly as compelling as the movie itself. Working on what was meant to be his MFA thesis, Burnett sporadically shot the film over the course of a year with a shoestring budget and a cast of untrained actors. Due to the expense of obtaining music rights to songs by Etta James and Earth, Wind & Fire, Killer of Sheep languished without distribution and despite earning a handful of awards and accolades, screenings were rare. As the years passed, the film’s status steadily grew. Following high-profile recognition from the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry, and its placement on the National Society of Film Critics’ list of the 100 essential films of all time, it eventually made its theatrical debut in 2007 to nearly universal acclaim. The forgotten classic makes for an alluring narrative, one that subsequently helps bolster and deflate expectations when the lost masterpiece is finally unearthed. Yet Burnett’s understated film, frequently likened to the Italian neo-realism movement of the 1940s and ’50s, is not built to bare this type of weight. Melancholy and sparse, it functions as an elegant snapshot of working-class African American life in Los Angeles during the 1970s, a group whose visibility was (and mostly remains) nonexistent in Hollywood. Alternatively revealing and oblique, the film provides little more than a fleeting glimpse into the lives of its characters, as if unlimited access were something the audience had not yet earned. Despite its triumphant second life, the world Killer of Sheep invites us into is just as elusive now as it was 34 years ago.
BURNETT APPEARS AT THE SCREENING OF KILLER OF SHEEP AND HIS SHORT FILM WHEN IT RAINS SUNDAY, FEB. 13 AT 2 P.M. AT THE EAST BUILDING AUDITORIUM OF THE NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART, 4TH ST. NW. FREE. (202) 737-4215.