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KILLER OF SHEEP

Director: CHARLES BURNETT

U.S.A. • 1977 • BLACK AND WHITE • 83 MIN


CHARLES BURNETT’S LONG-UNSEEN 1977 PORTRAIT OF WORKING-CLASS L.A. RANKS AS THE GREATEST AMERICAN INDEPENDENT FEATURE EVER MADE—AND DON’T JUST TAKE OUR WORD FOR IT, SINCE THE U.S. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS LISTED IT IN THEIR TOP 50 FILMS WORTHY OF PERMANENT PRESERVATION.
Shot over weekends on a micro-budget with a cast of friends and acquaintances, Burnett’s film school graduation project won much acclaim on the festival circuit on initial showings, only to fall into obscurity because he couldn’t afford the music he’d used from Earth Wind & Fire, Paul Robeson and others. Now that’s been taken care of (thanks in part to generous admirer Steven Soderbergh donating half the $150,000 licensing fees from his own pocket), this modern classic is ready to find the audience it has deserved all along.
Think ‘The Bill Douglas Trilogy’ and ‘The Terence Davies Trilogy’ and you’re in the same terrain as this heartfelt encapsulation of the quotidian grind, narrow horizons and fleeting pleasures experienced by these hard-pressed ordinary folk. Burnett’s camera captures fragments of their dreams and schemes, kids at play in the low-rent neighbourhood, and sexuality as a refuge—a series of moments, significant in their seeming insignificance, rather than a conventional storyline. Yet the wonderful, instinctive editing interweaves a succession of old blues and pop numbers to bring out Burnett’s overriding message about black America’s soulful creativity being forged by its people’s history of hardship—an ongoing history manifested by the raw yet symbolic scenes of an abattoir slaughterman at work to the strains of Dinah Washington’s ‘This Bitter Earth’. Essential viewing, make no mistake.—Trevor Johnston.

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