Monday, April 23, 2007

REVIEW: Killer Of Sheep

Charles Burnett's first film Killer of Sheep is a classic African American film finished in 1977 on a budget of $10, 000 which depicts 1970s life in the Watts ghetto that has been preserved and recently restored by UCLA Film & Television Archive. Thanks to a substantial donation by Oscar-winning director Stephen Soderbergh (Traffic, Syriana, Erin Brockovich) the music publishing rights were able to settled that allows this new black and white 35mm print of Killer of Sheep to be released commercially for the first time, 30 years after its completion.
Burnett went on to direct To Sleep With Anger and have relative success in the entertainment industry but rumors of this rarely seen classic have swirled around for decades.

Mad Professah and other half saw a screening of the film at the NuWilshire Theater in (the People's Republic of) Santa Monica last weekend. Being amateur cineasts ourselves and friends with Ross Lipman, the main film preservationist responsible for the current print, we were very interested in seeing Killer of Sheep. You can see the trailer for the film here (hat tip to Plus the film's reviews are voluble and enthusiastic:

"An American masterpiece, independent to the bone... This may be Mr. Burnett's most radical truth-telling." MANOHLA DARGIS, NEW YORK TIMES

"A masterpiece. One of the most insightful and authentic dramas about African-American life on film. One of the finest American films, period."

"Affectingly beautiful...Burnett used many kinds of African-American music on the soundtrack, and the movie itself has the bedraggled eloquence of an old blues record." DAVID DENBY, NEW YORKER

"The film of the season, if not the year, is a Southern California slice-of-life from 1977 that hasn't aged a day... A stirring and sophisticated evocation of working-class Watts." NATHAN LEE, VILLAGE VOICE
As one of the blog reviews I read points out "[...] Spike Lee and the people who make The Wire all owe a debt to Mr. Burnett." Since I do think HBO's The Wire is the best show on television this intrigued me.

Killer of Sheep is hard to review in the same context of other recent films I have seen in 2007 such as The Namesake, The Host, 300 and Boy Culture. I am happy that it has been restored and that many more people will get to see the film out of film classes. However, it is clearly NOT a crowd pleaser.

In several ways it is difficult to watch this film; it is slow, engrossing, graphic and frustrating all at once. The narrative thrust of the story is conveyed at the unhurried pace of a sleepy Sunday morning. The acting is uneven; in fact most of the people who appear on screen are not trained actors. In fact, often the audience watches the depiction of aimless children at play in questionably safe locations like active railroad tracks, abandoned derelict buildings, rickety bicycles and cement rooftops with mouths agape and worried frows. The explicit scenes of the lead character Stan at work at a slaughterhouse are shocking and reveal far more about the motivations and mindset of the character than any of the sparse dialogue.

The high point of the film is the inclusion of Dinah Washington's haunting rendition of "This Bitter Earth" on the soundtrack. The film itself is really the closest to a cinematic embodiment of a tragic blues tune you will ever see.


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