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Movies/TV Last Updated: May 30th, 2008 - 11:49:13

Burnett's 'Killer of Sheep'
By Esther Editor and FIlm Critic
May 25, 2007, 02:59

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For its 30th anniversary, Charles Burnett’s acclaimed masterpiece, “Killer of Sheep,” an unsentimental and quirky portrait of the Los Angeles Black working-class, has been restored and upgraded to a 35-mm print for the proper theatrical release that it never had in 1977. As it makes its way to dozens of cities in the coming weeks, film lovers may recognize it as an important missing link between the Blaxploitation era of movies of the 1970s and the “New Wave” of Black filmmakers that began with Spike Lee’s debut in 1986.

Shot entirely in black-and-white 16mm while Burnett was a graduate student at UCLA, “Killer of Sheep” has been lauded for its authentic depiction of African-American life,(obviously in comparison to that era’s cinematic thug life). Bittersweet and moody, the 83-minute movie revolves around the family of a man named Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), who we learn works in a slaughterhouse; his unnamed wife (Kaycee Moore), who seems to spend all her time trying to primp for Stan; and their two unnamed children — a boy and younger girl — who have a life “in the street” all of their own.

It is actually through the children that Burnett explores the environment of humble bungalows with porches alive with young chatter and energy, and fences with gaping holes just the right size for a boy to crawl through. Two of the funniest scenes involve Stan’s young daughter: In one, she wears a dog mask, and, in the other, she butchers the lyrics to Earth Wind and Fire’s “Reasons” while playing with a naked White doll. Child’s play also becomes Burnett’s unlikely vehicle to comment on the easy dangers of everyday life. Homemade scooters fly into the street, just barely missed by an approaching truck. Children throw rocks at one another. A train yard and train tracks become dicey places of amusement.

Much of the film is this kind of drama of errors that insistently does not ennoble the working class and often appears to draw parallels between the lives of hapless humans and sheep. Stan is nearly catatonic at home and bored with his attentive wife. He and his friends get involved in a series of failed adventures, such as purchasing a car engine or taking a weekend car excursion. We also see two men steal a TV and run down an alley. We watch another man ducking his woman who is wielding a pistol. Burnett is most sympathetic toward children and Stan. He is least generous toward women.

Burnett’s meditative style, filled with many moments that are quiet and startling, might remind you of the films of two of his contemporaries, Haile Gerima and Julie Dash. His film is built on a series of meticulous scenes that ramble on at a pace that might be a tad too slow for many filmgoers. But, if anything, “Killer of Sheep” is definitely not Hollywood. It is insistently not Hollywood. It thrives on its idiosyncrasies.

This review first appeared on Please support us by ordering Esther Iverem's We Gotta Have It: Twenty Years of Seeing Black at the Movies, 1986-2006 (Thunder’s Mouth Press, April 2007)at or at your favorite bookstore. Thanks!

Theatrical Dates for KILLER OF SHEEP:
Still playing:
5/4 - 10/07 BAM Rose Cinemas, Brooklyn, NY
5/4 - 10/07 Midtown Art Cinema, Atlanta, GA
May 2007:
5/17-20/07 Little Rock Film Festival, Little Rock, AR
5/18-24/07 Castro Theatre, San Francisco, CA
5/18-24/07 Smith Rafael Film Center, San Rafael, CA
5/18-24/07 Shattuck Cinemas, Berkeley, CA
5/18-6/1/07 University of Cincinnati, OH
5/19-31/07 Upstate Films, Rhinebeck, NY
5/21-23/07 Alamo Drafthouse, Austin, TX
5/25/07 Valley Gold Show Studio, Youngstown, OH
June 2007:
6/1 - 7/07 - E Street Cinema, Washington, DC *
6/1 - 7/07 Angelika Film Center, Dallas, TX
6/1 - 7/07 E Street Cinema, Washington, DC
6/1 - 7/07 Nickelodeon Cinema, Santa Cruz, CA
6/7 - 10/07 Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, Memphis, TN
6/7 - 10/07 Winston-Salem Cinema Society (at the Southeastern
Center for Contemporary Art), Winston-Salem, NC
6/8 - 17/07 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA
6/8 - 17/07 Belcourt Theatre, Nashville, TN
6/8 - 17/07 The Screen, Santa Fe, NM
6/14 & 6/16/07 Paramount Center for the Arts, Peekskill, NY
6/15 - 23/07 Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX
6/15 - 21/07 Landmark Theatres, Minneapolis, MN
6/18 - 21/07 State Theatre, State College, PA
6/20 - 26/07 Merrill's Roxy Cinema, Burlington, VT
6/22 - 28/07 Melwood Screening Room, Pittsburgh, PA
6/22 - 28/07 Northwest Film Forum, Seattle, WA
6/23/07, 6/26, 6/28/07 Cinematheque Ontario, Toronto, ON, Canada
6/25 - 26/07 Cinema Paradiso, Fort Lauderdale, FL
6/29 - 7/5/07 Ken Cinema, San Diego, CA
6/29 - 7/5/07 Tivoli Theatre, St. Louis, MO
6/29 - 7/1/07 Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, TX
6/29 - 7/5/07 Capri Theatre, Montgomery, AL
July 2007
7/6 - 8/07 Flint Institute of Art, Flint, MI
7/6 - 12/07 Loft Theatre, Tucson, AZ
7/13 - 17/07 Maine International Film Festival, Waterville, ME
7/13 - 15/07 Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque, OH
7/13 - 19/07 Market Street Cinema, Little Rock, AR
7/27 - 8/2/07 Tower Theatre, Salt Lake City, UT
7/30 - 31/07 Tulsa City County Library, OK
August - September 2007
8/3 - 6/07 One Night Cinema, Phoenix, AZ
8/3 - 9/07 Music Box Theatre, Chicago, IL
8/12/07 Hopkins Film Center, Hanover, NH
9/14 - 20/07 Cable Car Cinema, Providence, RI
9/17/07 Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque, OH
9/27 - 29/07 Wexner Center, Columbus, OH

© Copyright 2006

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