One of the inherent pitfalls of lost or forbidden phenomena—film or otherwise—is that it often develops a near-mythical status that's impossible to live up to. Anticipation, rumor, and our yearning for the unattainable all conspire to elevate the "rarely seen" to the supposed level of "phenomenally mind-blowing," making the ultimate consummation an inevitable disappointment.
Few filmmakers in recent years have been so squarely in position for this deflation as Charles Burnett, a relatively unknown African American director whose 1977 feature, Killer of Sheep, is the stuff of whispered legend. Prior to its re-release last year (both in theaters and on DVD by Criterion), Burnett's film-school thesis had been seen only by a tiny handful of cinephiles. Shelved for decades because the director never cleared the film's music rights, Killer's film-buff reputation intensified as the National Society of Film Critics named it one of the 100 best films of all time.
When Killer of Sheep was finally released last year, most critics (including this one) wet themselves in excitement—mostly by the movie itself, but also partly in relief at not being tremendously disappointed by the secreted-away film. Shot in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles with virtually no budget, Killer of Sheep marries neorealist cinema with working-class ghetto life. With scenes that are alternately heartbreaking and hilarious (once you acclimate to the performers' awkward stiffness), Killer proved itself to be a deeply moving film.
In the wake of the deserved Burnett renaissance, audiences are now privy to My Brother's Wedding, the director's 1983 follow-up—also "long-lost." It's a worthy companion piece to Killer—stylistically, it's similar in its vérité approach to the minutiae of black American existence. But it's hard enough to make one huge comeback in a lifetime, let alone two, and Killer of Sheep is the superior film. For audiences that haven't seen it yet, Killer's patient, three-decade gestation reminds us that in art, there's no such thing as "too late."