first feature film from acclaimed independent African American filmmaker Charles Burnett, this intensely emotional drama concerns a man who makes his living at a slaughterhouse as he struggles for economic and emotional survival and tries to patch up his often strained relationship with his family. Shot on weekends over a period of several years and first shown publicly in 1977, Killer of Sheep slowly but surely began to develop a potent reputation among film enthusiasts; in 1981, it won honors at the Berlin International Film Festival and an enthusiastic reception at the Sundance Film Festival. It was added to the Library of Congress' National Film Registry in 1990.
WITH the click of a mouse, Kathy Thomson brings a face out of the darkness — the face of a young African-American woman, looking with sadness and concern out of a small screened window in a white frame house. The face belongs to the actress Kaycee Moore, a star of Charles Burnett’s 1977 debut feature “Killer of Sheep,” and it has been hidden in shadows for almost 30 years.
Mr. Burnett, who directed, wrote, produced, edited and shot “Killer of Sheep,” hasn’t seen Ms. Moore’s face in quite this way since he first photographed it. Back then, he was a student filmmaker shooting on the run, with no money to spend on equipment and even less time to set it up, and he wasn’t able to light Ms. Moore so that she would stand out against the dim interior. But now that “Killer of Sheep” itself is coming out of the shadows, there is a little bit of time and money to go back and make the fixes that were impossible three decades ago.
Ms. Thomson is a colorist for Modern Videofilm, the company here that is transferring “Killer of Sheep” to video for its first DVD release, one of many steps in the complicated process of resurrecting a film many consider a lost masterpiece. It is Ms. Thomson’s job to go through a film, frame by frame, and make the adjustments in color and contrast that make an image pop on the screen.
Looking over her shoulder Mr. Burnett was impressed by her magic. “That’s nice,” he said softly, as one by one the images of “Killer of Sheep” took on a density and detail that had been dormant for years.
Mr. Burnett, then a 33-year-old graduate student at the University of California, Los Angeles, made “Killer of Sheep” as his thesis film. Working on weekends when he could gather his largely nonprofessional cast together, he used equipment checked out of the university — “Easy access to those cameras and editing machines was the reason I put off graduating as long as I could,” he said — and much of the black-and-white film stock was salvaged from production houses, which would often give the young student filmmakers their “short ends,” partially used reels of negative that still contained a few minutes of shooting time.
Mr. Burnett never dreamed that his film would get a commercial release. But today “Killer of Sheep” is widely acknowledged as one of the most insightful and authentic dramas about African-American life on film, as well as one of the earliest examples of the politically aware black independent cinema that was taking shape in the 1970s.
And in the years since, even as it has become almost impossible to see, “Killer of Sheep” has gathered a reputation as one of the finest American films, period. In 1988 Mr. Burnett received a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant on the basis of “Killer of Sheep” and made his second feature, “My Brother’s Wedding”; in 1990 “Killer of Sheep” was named to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.
Where has “Killer of Sheep” been? “It was never meant to be shown in public,” Mr. Burnett said, explaining why he had never obtained permission to use the musical passages — marvelously apposite choices of blues, pop and jazz — that accompany and accentuate his images. Even though the fragile 16 millimeter film itself had been restored and transferred to 35 millimeters by the U.C.L.A. film preservationist Ross Lipman in 2000, no distributor was willing to take on a title with such conspicuous legal problems. The cost of tracking down the owners of the music rights and compensating them seemed to far outweigh any potential profit.
Enter Dennis Doros, who, with his wife, Amy Heller, runs Milestone Film & Video, a boutique distributor with an unconventional catalog — silent films, travel documentaries, philosophical Asian dramas — that reflects the taste of its founders. Mr. Doros heard about the restoration from his friend Mr. Lipman, and after meeting with Mr. Burnett, decided to take the plunge.
“We thought it would take about six months to get the music clearances,” Mr. Doros said. “That was six years ago.”
The rights ended up costing $150,000, far more than the small company could afford. The director Steven Soderbergh providentially stepped forward with a gift of $75,000, and the project was saved. Milestone plans to open it in theaters around the country this spring, beginning Friday at the IFC Center in Manhattan. A DVD release will follow in the fall.
There is nothing else in American movies quite like “Killer of Sheep.” Thematically the film is a reaction against the “blaxploitation” films that were filling downtown theaters in the early ’70s. There are no supercops or superpimps in Mr. Burnett’s Watts, the neighborhood he has lived in (or near) since his family moved to Los Angeles from Vicksburg, Miss., when he was a child.
This is a community of working-class strivers doing what they can to keep their families together, glimpsed in a series of impressionistic images and fragmented scenes, its rhythms those of chance happenings rather than a four-square, three-act plot. Mr. Burnett has directed 17 movies of varying length since then, including “To Sleep With Anger” (1990) and the television film “The Wedding” (1998), but “Killer of Sheep” remains his most free-spirited creation, the work of a naturally gifted artist who has not yet learned what rules he is breaking.
The hero of “Killer of Sheep” is an earnest young man named Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders). In the perpetual grip of an indefinable sadness, Stan struggles to support his wife (Ms. Moore), his son (Jack Drummond) and his small daughter (Angela Burnett, a niece of the filmmaker), by working in a slaughterhouse. He is a killer of sheep, processing the animals that pass through the killing floor, but he is also a counter of sheep, a man who can’t sleep, eaten away by unnamed anxieties.
Stan is both an executioner and a victim, forced to acquiesce to a brutal system if he is to preserve what is most tender and fine in his life. But the film frequently wanders away from its main character, following Stan’s son as he goes off to play games of war in an empty lot (in scenes that strikingly anticipate David Gordon Green’s 2000 film, “George Washington”) or observing Stan’s wife as she carefully applies her makeup, hoping to rekindle Stan’s romantic interest.
Mr. Burnett remembers meeting Mr. Sanders, his leading man, when they shared an elevator in a Wilshire Boulevard building, where Mr. Burnett, then working as an assistant in a management company to put himself through college, was dropping off a script.
“I thought Henry was the saddest-looking man I’d ever seen, like he had the whole weight of the world on his shoulders,” said Mr. Burnett, “so I asked him if he’d ever done any acting.”
As it turned out, Mr. Sanders, a Vietnam veteran who had moved to Los Angeles hoping to turn his autobiographical novel into a play, had already appeared in a handful of films, including one directed by Bobby Roth, a U.C.L.A. classmate of Mr. Burnett’s.
“You’d better be careful who you get in an elevator with,” said Mr. Sanders, now 64 and still a working actor and playwright. “You might end up in a motion picture.”
When “Killer of Sheep” finally opens, it will be the same strange, beautiful, despairing and hopeful film that Charles Burnett made in 1977, though with one small change. At the end the film returns to the abattoir where Stan works, and as we watch him angrily, almost brutally, driving the sheep from their pen to the slaughterhouse floor, we hear Dinah Washington’s smoky, romantic recording of “Unforgettable.”
Because the owner of the publishing rights to “Unforgettable” ultimately declined to lease them to Mr. Doros, that song has been replaced by Washington’s searing interpretation of “This Bitter Earth.” A more pointed choice, perhaps, but in the context of the film a no less complex one: it’s the same song that Stan and his wife dance to earlier in the film, alone together in their sparely furnished living room on a sunlit afternoon, the movie’s most deeply felt moment of peace and trust.