Killer of Sheep
July 18th, 2017

Killer of Sheep [1978]

Please join Cultivate Cinema Circle and Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center as we celebrate the work of Charles Burnett. First up is a one-night screening of the 40th anniversary restoration of Killer of Sheep [1978].

  • Screening Date: Tuesday, July 18th, 2017 | 7:30pm
  • Venue: Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center
  • Specifications: 1978 / 80 minutes / English / Black & White
  • Director(s): Charles Burnett
  • Print: Supplied by Milestone Films
  • Tickets: $8 general, $6 students & seniors, $5 members

Event Sponsors:

Venue Information:

341 Delaware Ave, Buffalo, NY 14202

TrailerSynopsisContextRestorationDirector BioLinks

Courtesy of the film’s website:

Writer/Director Charles Burnett submitted his first feature, Killer of Sheep, as his thesis for his MFA in film at UCLA. The film was shot on location near his family’s home in Watts in a series of weekends on a shoestring budget of less than $10,000, most of which was grant money.

With a mostly amateur cast (consisting of Burnett’s friends and acquaintances), much handheld camera work, episodic narrative and gritty documentary-style cinematography, Killer of Sheep has been compared by film critics and scholars to Italian neorealist films like Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief and Roberto Rossellini’s Paisan. However, Burnett cites Basil Wright’s Song of Ceylon and Night Mail and Jean Renoir’s The Southerner as his main influences.

In 1981, Killer of Sheep received the Critic’s 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 the film as one of the 100 Essential Films of all time.

2017 marks the 40th anniversary of this landmark film and Milestone is celebrating with a worldwide tour of this classic film along with Billy Woodberry’s Bless Their Little Hearts with script and cinematography by Charles Burnett!


  • Berlin International Film Festival – 1981 – Winner: Critics’ Award & FIPRESCI Prize (Forum of New Cinema)
  • Toronto International Film Festival – 1981
  • AFI Fest – 1990
  • National Film Preservation Board – 1990 – National Film Registry

Clyde Taylor of New York University coined the phrase, “The L.A. Rebellion” as a term to refer to the group of young black politically-minded artists trading ideas and labor at the UCLA Film School in the 1970‘s. Though Charles Burnett has insisted in several interviews that he and his fellow filmmakers did not in fact consider themselves part of a “rebellion” or “movement” as such, and that it was merely a radical time in American history, he describes the atmosphere at UCLA as one of camaraderie in radical thought. He called UCLA an “anti-Hollywood” environment with a “kind of anarchistic flavor to it” in which one “had to come up with something relevant or extremely well done, original.”

Other directors at UCLA at this time were Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust, 1991), Haile Gerima (Sankofa, 1993), Billy Woodbury (Bless Their Little Hearts, 1984), and Larry Clark (Passing Through, 1977). Burnett himself was the cinematographer for Gerima‘s Bush Mama (1979), worked crew and camera and edited Dash‘s Illusions (1982) and wrote the script and shot Woodbury‘s Bless Their Little Hearts. Another notable figure is UCLA professor Elyseo Taylor, who started the school’s Ethno-Communications department, a program focused on the study and production of films by people of color.

Many of the films that were being made at the time by this peer group have been compared by film critics and scholars to Italian neorealist films of the 1940‘s, the Third World cinema of the ’60s and ‘70s, and the Iranian New Wave of the 90’s. A major thematic thread that runs through many of the films is a critical response to White Hollywood and Blaxploitation. “We needed the spectrum,” says Burnett, “the full range of the black experience.”

UCLA has long been considered a leader in the preservation of classic Hollywood cinema, but increasingly in recent years they’ve also been preserving the very best of American independent cinema. At technical level Killer of Sheep demanded immediate attention, as it was already deteriorating when we received the material in 2000. The original 16mm A/B rolls as well as the magnetic soundtrack master suffered from vinegar syndrome, putting the film on a ticking clock.

Killer of Sheep had previously existed only in rough 16mm copies, and the 35mm blow-up restoration better renders the beautiful quality of Charles’ lovely in-the-street cinematography. One of the genuine privileges of doing this work at UCLA is that we’re able to apply the best technical resources in LA to a small, low-budget production that would never otherwise benefit from such treatment. But despite the access to high-end resources, we made great efforts to preserve exactly the rough quality of the original, so as not to alter the work. Especially careful attention was given to image contrast and tonality, to carefully bring out the best aspects of the original negative. We’re indebted to Film Technology Company for their excellent lab work. We also, with the help of John Polito of Audio Mechanics, conducted close and judicious work on the “verite-like” soundtrack, which was often recorded by the many kids who appear in the film.

— Ross Lipman, preservationist at UCLA Film & Television Archive, has been responsible for the restoration of the films of John Cassavetes, John Sayles, and Kenneth Anger. He is the director of Milestone’s release, Notfilm.

Milestone’s 2017 release is based on the digital restoration by Modern Videofilm.

“The impetus was the whole Civil Rights Movement and we felt we had a responsibility to reflect reality, tell the truth about the black community. To help, however we can, to march the social movement forward.”

Courtesy of film’s website:

Born in Vicksburg, Mississippi on April 13, 1944, Charles Burnett moved with his family to Los Angeles at an early age. He describes Watts, the community he grew up in, as having a strong mythical connection with the South thanks to the many Southern transplants who settled there — an atmosphere that has informed much of Burnett’s work. He attended John C. Fremont High School, where he ran track. As a member of the electronics club, Burnett befriended fellow electronics enthusiast and secretly aspiring actor Charles Bracy (The Million Dollar Rip-off, 1976), who would later work on and act in a number of Burnett’s films, including Killer of Sheep. Burnett and Bracy graduated in the same class and both went on to study as electricians at Los Angeles City College. Bracy left school early to take a full-time job and Burnett soon lost interest with the idea of being a professional electrician. “They were very strange people,” Burnett says of his electrician-to-be peers, “They told awful jokes. They were dull people. Didn’t want that. I was always interested in photography and looked into being a cinematographer and started taking creative writing at UCLA.”

Burnett decided to pursue a Master of Fine Arts in filmmaking at UCLA, where he was greatly influenced by his professors Basil Wright, the English documentary filmmaker famous for Night Mail and Song of Ceylon, and Elyseo Taylor, creator of the Ethno-Communications program and professor of Third World cinema. Burnett cites Jean Renoir, Satyajit Ray, Federico Fellini and Sidney Lumet as other important cinematic influences.

Burnett worked and studied at UCLA alongside Julie Dash, Haile Gerima, Billy Woodbury, Larry Clark, and Jamaa Fanaka (then known as Walter Gordon). He describes the UCLA film school as an “anti-Hollywood” environment with a “kind of anarchistic flavor to it.” The UCLA filmmakers shared a disdain for the Blaxploitation vogue of the day and a propensity toward filmmaking that was “relevant or extremely well done, original.” Clyde Taylor of New York University would later label this group of radical black film contemporaries the “L.A. Rebellion.” Although there was no conscious impetus among these filmmakers to declare themselves part of a “rebellion,” there was much camaraderie and exchange of ideas and labor between them. Burnett was the cinematographer for Gerima’s Bush Mama (1979), worked crew and camera and edited Dash’s Illusions (1982) and was the screenwriter and cinematographer for Woodbury’s Bless Their Little Hearts (1984).

Burnett and his contemporaries took their time at UCLA, staying in the program as long as they could in order to take advantage of the free film equipment and making film after film. Burnett made a number of seminal films at this time, the most notably his thesis film and first feature, Killer of Sheep. The precursor to Killer of SheepSeveral Friends (1969), was originally planned as a feature but ended up a short. Several Friends was a series of loose, documentary-style vignettes sketching the lives of a handful of characters, mostly played by amateurs (Burnett’s friends) living in Watts. Much of the film’s theme and aesthetic (and many of its actors) ended up in Killer of Sheep.

Several Friends is included in Milestone’s DVD release of Killer of Sheep, along with another student short The Horse (1973), the critically acclaimed short When It Rains (1995), his portrait of a family in post-Katrina New Orleans, Quiet as Kept, and both original release and the director’s cut of Burnett’s second feature, a long-neglected landmark of independent cinema, My Brother’s Wedding (1984).

My Brother’s Wedding began production in 1983. Burnett wrote, directed and produced this low budget independent film that examines the family connections and personal obligations facing Pierce, a young man trying to keep his best friend from going back to jail while dealing with his older brother’s approaching marriage into a bourgeois black family. My Brother’s Wedding uses both comedy and tragedy to explore the way that class figures into the American black experience. Burnett submitted a rough cut of the film to its producers, who against his wishes, accepted it as the final cut. The unfinished film was shown at the New Directors/New Films festival to mixed reviews, discouraging distributors and tragically relegating the film to relative obscurity.

In 1990, Burnett wrote and directed the haunting, malicious, and darkly funny family drama, To Sleep With Anger. Danny Glover, parlaying his recent stardom in Lethal Weapon to get funding, co-produced and starred in this critically lauded film as Harry, a charming, mischievous, and possibly supernatural Southern family friend. As he insinuates himself into the home of a prosperous black family, Harry, like another snaky charmer, threatens to spoil their domestic paradise. Burnett received acclaim in America and abroad for the film. In 1991, To Sleep With Anger won Independent Spirit Awards for Best Director and Best Screenplay for Burnett and Best Actor for Glover. The Library of Congress later selected this film (in addition to Killer of Sheep) for its prestigious National Film Registry. The National Society of Film Critics honored Burnett for best screenplay for To Sleep With Anger, making him the first black filmmaker to win in this category in the group’s 25-year history. While the Los Angeles Times reported that Burnett’s movie reminded viewers of Anton Chekov, Time magazine wrote: “If Spike Lee’s films are the equivalent of rap music — urgent, explosive, profane, then Burnett’s movie is good, old urban blues.” The film also received a Special Jury Recognition Award at the 1990 Sundance Film Festival and a Special Award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. Both Burnett and Glover were nominated for New York Film Critics Circle Awards.

Burnett’s next film, The Glass Shield, (1994, starring Lori Petty, Michael Boatman and Ice Cube) was a police drama based on a true story of corruption and racism within the Los Angeles police force. While the film went over well with critics, it was not a commercial success. Terrence Rafferty explains: “[The Glass Shield is] a thoughtful, lucid moral drama with a deeply conflicted hero and no gunplay whatsoever. Miramax’s fabled marketing department tried to sell it as a hood movie, dumping it in a few urban theaters with the support of miniscule ads whose most prominent feature was the glowering face of Ice Cube (who has a small role in the picture).”

Burnett followed this feature with the short, When It Rains (1995), which was chosen as one of the ten best films of 1990s by the Chicago Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum. Rosenbaum went on to choose Killer of Sheep and To Sleep with Anger as two of the Top 100 American Films as Alternate to the American Film Institute Top 100.

Working with movie stars James Earl Jones and Lynn Redgrave, Burnett directed the surreal interracial romantic comedy The Annihilation of Fish (1999), which won awards at the Newport Beach, Sarasota, and Worldfest Houston Film Festivals.

Burnett traveled to Africa to make Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation (2007), a powerful, epic biography of Sam Nujoma, the leader of the South West Africa People’s Movement and the nation’s first president. Based on Nujoma’s memoirs, the film stars Carl Lumbly and Danny Glover.

Throughout his career, Burnett has also embraced the documentary form — many of his earliest film efforts walk the line between fiction and nonfiction cinema. He directed the 1991 documentary about U.S. immigration, America Becoming; Dr. Endesha Ida Mae Holland (1998), a portrait of a civil rights activist, playwright, and teacher; and Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (2003) about the leader of an important slave rebellion.

Burnett made his television debut directing his acclaimed 1996 Disney Channel film, Nightjohn. Based on the Gary Paulsen’s novel, the film tells the story of a slave’s risky attempt to teach an orphaned slave girl to read and write. New Yorker film critic Terrence Rafferty called Nightjohn the “best American movie of 1996.” The TV film received a 1997 Special Citation Award from the National Society of Film Critics “for a film whose exceptional quality and origin challenge strictures of the movie marketplace.”

Burnett’s television work also includes the 1998 ABC two-part mini-series Oprah Winfrey Presents: The Wedding, starring Halle Barry and Lynn Whitfield; Selma, Lord, Selma (1999), about the infamous 1965 “Bloody Sunday” civil rights march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge; a film about Negro League Baseball, Finding Buck McHenry (2000); Relative Stranger (2009), a drama about a painful family reunion; and Warming By the Devil’s Fire (2003), an episode in Martin Scorsese’s six-part documentary The Blues for PBS. Burnett also worked on the PBS miniseries American Family: The Journey of Dreams, which debuted in 2002.

In 1997, the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival honored Burnett with a retrospective, Witnessing For Everyday Heroes, presented at New York’s Walter Reade Theater of Lincoln Center. Burnett has been awarded grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the J. P. Getty Foundation, as well as a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship (a.k.a. “the genius grant”).

Burnett is also the winner of the American Film Institute’s Maya Deren Award, and one of the very few people ever to be honored with Howard University’s Paul Robeson Award for achievement in cinema. The Chicago Tribune has called him “one of America’s very best filmmakers” and the New York Times named him “the nation’s least-known great filmmaker and most gifted black director.” Burnett has even had a day named after him — in 1997, the mayor of Seattle declared February 20 to be Charles Burnett Day.

Burnett has been cited as a major influence by many current artists, musicians, writers, and filmmakers, including Barry Jenkins, Sherman Alexie, Lance Hammer, Matthew David Wilder, Bill Jennings. David Gordon Green, Nelson Kim, Kahlil Joseph, Ava DuVernay, Lynne Ramsay, Monona Wali, Mos Def, Pamela J. Peters, and hip hop duo Shabazz Palaces.

Burnett’s next feature film project, Tanner’s Song, pays homage from Bobby Kimball — original lead signer of the Grammy Award-winning band, Toto — to the wise man who mentored him. Danny Glover has expressed interest in playing the role of Tanner.

Charles Burnett lives Los Angeles. He is the father of two sons, Jonathan and Steven, and the grandfather of Malia and Leila Burnett.

“I don’t think I’m capable of answering problems that have been here for many years. But I think the best I can do is present them in a way where one wants to solve these problems.”


  • After the LockDown: Black in LA (2021)
  • Power to Heal: Medicare and the Civil Rights Revolution (2018)
  • Relative Stranger (2009)
  • Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation (2007)
  • For Reel? (2003)
  • Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (2003)
  • Finding Buck McHenry (2000)
  • The Annihilation of Fish (1999)
  • The Wedding (1998)
  • The Final Insult (1997)
  • Documenta X – Die Filme (1997)
  • Nightjohn (1996)
  • The Glass Shield (1994)
  • America Becoming (1991)
  • To Sleep with Anger (1990)
  • My Brother’s Wedding (1983)
  • Killer of Sheep (1978)

Here is a curated selection of links shared on our Facebook page for additional insight/information:

  • 6/21/17 – “Killer of Sheep, largely hidden from view for three decades, is an American masterpiece, independent to the bone.” Manohla Dargis, The New York Times – link
  • 7/7/17 – In Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin’s visual essay AGAINST THE REAL, they argue for the expressive nature of Killer of Sheep by Charles Burnett and Lynne Ramsey’s Ratcatcher, rather than the neorealist rap that these films usually glean from critics.
  • 7/12/17 – Back in 2015, the BBC named Killer of Sheep by Charles Burnett the 26th Greatest American Film of All Time (just above Pulp Fiction & Raging Bull)! – link
  • 7/17/17 – “Burnett and Woodberry are two of the crucial figures in the L.A. Rebellion, a group of black filmmakers, centered around U.C.L.A. in the nineteen-seventies and early eighties, whose films have enduringly marked the history of cinema.” Richard Brody, The New Yorker – link

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