A good film shot as a graduate school thesis usually earns an A and a pat on the back. An exceptional one can go on to win the Critics’ Award at the Berlin Film Festival, be listed as one of the National Society of Film Critics’ 100 Essential Films of all time, become one of the first fifty films in the U.S. Library of Congress’ National Film Registry — and still be completely neglected for thirty years.
Case in point: the film “Killer of Sheep,” which Cinema at the Whitney selected to kick-off a two-day celebration of Charles Burnett, a critically acclaimed, yet widely unknown, African-American director. Burnett, a MacArthur award winner, was among the first generation of academically trained African-American filmmakers. Born in Mississippi in 1944, he moved to Los Angeles as a child and has lived there ever since. Social movements, also known as “third cinema,” in Africa, Brazil and Cuba strongly influenced his work. Most of his other films share the fate of “Killer of Sheep”: appreciated by critics, they nevertheless remained largely unknown to the general public.
Terri Francis, assistant professor of film studies and African American studies, called Burnett a poet whose works were restricted by his means.
“If making a movie weren’t so expensive and time-consuming, Charles Burnett would be like a Langston Hughes of filmmaking with a zillion miles of movies to his credit,” she said.
Despite being finished in 1977, “Killer of Sheep” was not released immediately, because Burnett lacked the funds to buy the rights to the movie’s soundtrack, and did not come out in theaters until 2007. Shot on a limited budget during weekends over the course of a year in the Watts district of Los Angeles, the film relies on non-professional actors to paint a realistic yet poetic picture of daily struggles in an impoverished urban neighborhood. The movie presents a series of loosely connected episodes in the life of Stan (Henry Gayle Saunders), a slaughterhouse worker who comes home every day exhausted, depressed and troubled by insomnia-inducing thoughts, while quietly and with a touching urgency seeking refuge in the love of his family.
“Killer of Sheep” is not a straightforward narrative, but a puzzle of seemingly separate pictures unified by a pervading sense of pain and hardship, and by the resolve to keep going, to always look for the beauty and joy mixed with all the suffering. The film’s imagery — taken from life itself — is powerful in its simplicity and speaks to the audience directly and clearly, as only realist cinema can.
Members of Cinema at the Whitney say the film is an original and important work worth sharing with the Yale community, citing the movie’s emotionally-charged images that engage the viewer on a personal level.
“It is a portrait, not a message movie, which is what makes it valuable,” Undergraduate Chair of Cinema at the Whitney David Pratt-Robson ’08 said. “It doesn’t propose solutions, partly because it recognizes there may not be any large ones, but instead proposes a constant possibility of hope for its characters.”
It is precisely this non-patronizing approach that makes the movie so accessible and relevant, even three decades later. The film captures the simple, fleeting beauty of close human interaction so skillfully that it is hardly a surprise that “Killer of Sheep” appeals to critics and audiences alike.
Michael Cramer, graduate chair of Cinema at the Whitney, said the film holds universal appeal for a diverse audience.
“It is also a film so beautifully filmed in black-and-white with such a strong poetic sense of the little possibilities of everyday life that I do think almost anyone can relate,” he said.
Faculty members were equally enthusiastic in their praise of the film and excited about introducing it to the college community. John Mackay, associate professor of film studies, singled out the movie’s interpretation of the urban life theme as its defining feature and promised that those who come to the screening “are in for something very special.”
“The film creates a real vision of African American urban life that both sticks indelibly in the mind and totally avoids cliche, whether on the level of narrative, characterization, editing or image,” he said.
Dudley Andrew, director of graduate studies in the Film Studies Program, called the movie “a touching film that resonates long after in the viewer” and shows that “movies really can open onto inner as well as real landscapes, without pretending to define or judge them.” Having been in Los Angeles at the time, he said he had no feel for the life of the people in Watts, but praised the film for capturing the flavor and atmosphere of Watts through “sheer sensitivity, which is never sentimental and which doesn’t want to berate.”
However, “Killer of Sheep” is also socially relevant, in that it provides a sense of African-American identity that is unique and distinct from the style of popular filmmakers.
“I wonder if this might be the movie that makes black film aesthetically important to people who otherwise might not be interested, in a way that’s different from Spike Lee,” Francis said.
Free screenings of five of Burnett’s movies begin today, with Burnett himself leading a Q&A session after “Killer of Sheep.” On Saturday, a panel discussion with faculty will follow a screening of “Bless Their Little Hearts” and the African-American House will host a lunch reception and DVD screening of “Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property.”