Killer of Sheep
Charles Burnett / US, 1977 / 80 min.
The cinema vérité masterpiece Killer of Sheep (1977), a portrait of a family living in Watts, a deprived neighbourhood in Los Angeles, was long regarded as the ultimate underground film. The film was officially released (in a restored version) in 2007, with a soundtrack that includes such top acts as Etta James and Earth Wind & Fire.
Director Charles Burnett created a cinema vérité-like tale about Stan, who lives in Watts and puts in long hours at a slaughterhouse. Stan (Henry Gale Sanders) comes home from work exhausted but tries to make the best of things, as does his wife (Kaycee More). The camera follows the cast – largely made up of Burnett”s friends and acquaintances – in loosely connected episodes that together form a slice of life; friends drop by, the kids are playing, neighbours come over to say hello.
Burnett”s 16mm film was his final project at UCLA”s Film Department and came with a soundtrack featuring songs by top performers like Etta James, Earth Wind & Fire and Dinah Washington and music by Gershwin and Rachmaninov. Due to the steep music rights, it was impossible to distribute the film, but “underground” screenings established Burnett”s name.
Killer of Sheep was everything a Blaxploitation film was not: an enacted but realistic portrait of life in a Black, deprived neighbourhood, without any undue emphasis on drugs and violence and without funky action heroes in the lead role.
“The most influential film you never saw” was restored by UCLA Film Archives in 2007 and was rereleased, with the music rights paid, as a tribute to Charles Burnett and the independent Black cinema of the 1970s. At that time Burnett belonged to the L.A. Rebellion, a group of African American, Caribbean and African filmmakers and video makers who drew inspiration from such events as the violent riots in Watts (1965), a large Black neighbourhood in South Los Angeles where the residents rose up against poverty, dismal educational prospects and social exclusion.
16 July, Akwasi will give a spoken word performance (15') to mark the opening of Xtended: Traveling While Black. Independent documentary maker, programmer en cultural advisor Tessa Boerman will give an introduction.
Killer of Sheep