Killer of Sheep - Charles Burnett

Sheep of the just

Kaleem Aftab celebrates the films of African American cinema’s greatest unknown filmmaker Charles Burnett

Google Charles Burnett’s name and you will come across ecstatic proclamations such as ‘considered one of America’s greatest filmmakers’. That may come as a shock to the many who have never heard of the African American filmmaker or seen any of his films.

So, if this guy is so good why isn’t he as famous as Spike Lee or mentioned in the same breath as Scorsese and Spielberg? The answer is also the reason Burnett is so admired by his fans – he makes small, lyrical films that are slices of African-American life that rarely branch into melodrama and feel so close to reality that it’s often hard to believe that they’re really non-narrative.

While Scorsese often talks about his love of Italian post-war movies in interviews, it’s actually Burnett who has come closest to transplanting the lyricism of Italian-neo-realism to American soil, successfully mixing the aesthetic of European arthouse with the cross-class African-American experience.

The quintessential Charles Burnett film is his 1977 UCLA graduation film Killer of Sheep. Despite being chosen by the National Society of Film Critics as one of the ‘100 Essential Films’ and winning the critics’ award at the 1981 Berlin Film Festival, Killer of Sheep has been a hidden gem because of problems securing the music rights to the songs featured in it.

It was also available only on a 16mm print until 2007. That was when the music rights were finally secured – although the song in the final scene was changed from Dinah Washington’s ‘Unforgettable’ to ‘This Bitter Earth’ – and a 35mm film made. Now Scottish audiences will finally get a chance to see the film that established Burnett as a filmmaker to watch.

It was Burnett, not Spike Lee, who first started telling stories of the African-American middle class as a rebuke to the stereotypical black characters found in blaxploitation movies. But his 1985 film My Brother’s Wedding was not nearly as popular as Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It, released a year later, and Burnett was destined to remain in the shadows.

Attempting a comeback in 1990, Burnett put Danny Glover in To Sleep with Anger, but the resulting film left many critics wondering whether Killer of Sheep was a fluke. Throughout the 90s, Burnett continued to make non-confrontational films with a realist perspective that never progressed to the mainstream.

The director complained that his refusal to show negative images of black people in his films ensured that he lost out to in-vogue filmmakers such as John Boyz n The Hood Singleton.

Critically, at least, Burnett enjoyed a return to form with 1994’s The Glass Shield, but the film’s box-office failure forced him into making TV movies, such as The Wedding, starring Halle Berry, and Selma, Lord, Selma.

Ultimately however, it’s not by looking at his CV that you’ll find the reason Burnett is considered one of the great filmmakers, it’s by watching Killer of Sheep, a work of almost unbearable beauty.

Killer of Sheep, Filmhouse, Edinburgh from Fri 22 to Mon 25 Aug.

Killer of Sheep

  • 5 stars
  • 1977
  • US
  • 1h 20min
  • 12A
  • Directed by: Charles Burnett
  • Written by: Charles Burnett
  • Cast: Henry G Sanders, Kaycee Moore, Charles Bracy, Angela Burnett

Charles Burnett's seminal 1977 ultra naturalistic portrayal of urban African-American life gets a very welcome re-release. See where latter day auteur David Gordon Green ('George Washington', 'All the Real Girls', the forthcoming 'Pineapple Express') stole all his ideas from.