When Charles Burnett made the film “Killer of Sheep” back in 1997, his goal was simple: He wanted to show everyday life in black Los Angeles through the eyes of the people who lived it, and he wanted to demystify the whole concept of filmmaking within his community.
Consequently, the actors he used were all amateurs; mostly friends and acquaintances.
“It wasn’t about acting at that point. I was trying to get out a story. . . The whole idea was to get a film done in the community and tell a story using real people. It was also a film where you don’t impose your outline and choices on the film.
“There was a plot,” continued Burnett, “but at the end of the day it just happens.”
The result was a gritty black and white film that evokes emotions ranging from amusement at the antics of the children in the film to amazement at their roof hopping daring to empathy for a young couple struggling to make it, and in the process losing much of what attracted them to one another in the first place.
Despite its simplistic nature, Killer of Sheep, which was restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive and has just been released on DVD, has begun to win more recognition, and no one is more surprised than Burnett.
Barnette will be honored by the Pan African Film Festival with its Pioneer Award Feb. 9. And, another one of his films,” My Brother’s Wedding,” which was also restored by UCLA, will screen during the film festival on Feb. 8.
In 1981, Killer of Sheep received the Critics Award at the Berlin International Film Festival. In 1990, the Library of Congress declared it a national treasure and placed it among the first 50 films entered in the National Film Registry for its historical significance. In 2002, the National Society of Film Critics selected Killer of Sheep as one of the 100 Essential Films of all time, and just last month the New York Film Critics Circle voted to give Burnett a special critic’s award for his film.
“It’s picking up steam, and I didn’t expect that. When I came up, we were sort of brained washed. I grew up with a bunch of guys like those in Killer of Sheep. We didn’t think we were going to live to be 21,” said Burnett .
“It wasn’t made for that sort of thing (huge commercial recognition), and it wasn’t made for theatrical release. It was made for people active in the community. We wanted to talk about what was happening in the community.”
Burnett said that when he made the movie, black films were being done by people like Melvin Van Peebles, Ossie Davis and Gordon Parks.
“Then you had the whole black exploitation, and it was very significant in a way. It made a lot of money for Hollywood, but it was revolutionary because it saw black people writing and directing films about black folks. Before that (with people like Oscar Micheaux) blacks were working outside the industry. With the black exploitation films they were working inside the industry more or less.”
Burnett said he had no illusions about what awaited him after film school. “I figured I’d be working at another job, and filmmaking would be something I did as a hobby. But it has become the only job, and I’ve done everything to support the filmmaking.”
While he has made well respected films such as “To Sleep With Anger,” “The Glass Shield” as well as television work like the Wedding, NightJohn, Selma Lord Selma and Finding Buck McHenry, Burnett has not claimed the huge commercial success of some of his peers. But he is philosophical and realistic about his accomplishments.
“Everything is a compromise to some extent, particularly when you do things for the money people. . . I think it’s a better situation when you are independent. You get close to what you want, but it’s still always a compromise because of the actors, the money, because of something. It’s always a challenge.”