Killer of Sheep, Charles Burnett's gritty 1977 portrait of a Watts ghetto, has a lot to live up to—namely, its own hype. Burnett made Killer of Sheep as a UCLA film student for $10,000, using friends and neighbors as actors and shooting on weekends for over a year. The resulting film has been heralded by the National Society of Film Critics as one of the 100 Essential Films of all time, and was called "one of the most striking debuts in movie history" by GQ. But until now, audiences have never had the opportunity to see Burnett's semi-legendary feature.
The black-and-white film, which follows the daily lives of a small group of African Americans in the '70s, is filled with the music of Earth, Wind & Fire, Little Walter, and the like—but since Burnett never received clearance to use the music, Killer of Sheep was never released theatrically, and has instead been locked away for 30 years. Now—with the music rights finally paid off, and the film restored and released—the astonishing thing is that not only does Killer of Sheep live up to its own mythology, but transcends it as a fascinating, melancholy, and entertaining work of art and social realism.
There is no real plot to summarize here: Burnett's camera acts as a fly on the wall as his characters argue, play, work, and struggle through a series of relatively uneventful days in Los Angeles' Watts neighborhood. In what feels at many times like a documentary, we watch patriarch Stan (Henry Sanders) lay tarpaper flooring in his run-down bungalow and cash checks at the liquor store. A group of nearly feral children have rock fights in the abandoned lot of a demolished building, while a group of friends tries to make a rare daytrip to the racetrack—but get a flat tire and are forced to drive back to the ghetto on the wheel rims.
But in Killer of Sheep, it's not what happens so much as how it happens: Burnett coaxes extraordinary performances out of his non-professional actors, and as director, steps back to let simple actions unfold in place of conventional drama. The result is a fascinating work of art that's full of anger and sadness and defeat (and surprisingly, of playfulness). Nothing in Killer of Sheep ever feels put on, and everything springs from something true and human. Compounded by the unique "time capsule" back story at play here, that tone makes Killer of Sheep one of the most rewarding and enriching film-going experiences in recent memory.