In 1978, Charles Burnett made a black-and-white feature titled Killer of Sheep for his UCLA graduate thesis. The fictional story depicts a neighborhood of working-class black families trying to make a living—the main character works at a sheep slaughterhouse—dealing with day-to-day ups and downs of childhood, marriage and poverty. The film is so lyrical and beautifully shot, it has become a touchstone in film school programs across the nation. And the story, which Burnett tells through the lens of Watts, the Los Angeles neighborhood he grew up in, is a study in social justice art that's just as relevant today as ever.
Burnett's name might not be familiar, but the Chicago Tribune has called him "one of America's very best filmmakers" and The New York Times wrote he's "the nation's least-known great filmmaker and most gifted black director." Killer of Sheep went on to win the 1981 critics prize at the Berlin International Film Festival and became one of the first 50 American films deemed worthy of permanent preservation by the Library of Congress. Burnett has gone on to make other works, including To Sleep with Anger, starring Danny Glover, and several documentaries. He visits Missoula this week as a guest of the Montana Film Festival (Thu., Oct. 6–Sun., Oct. 9). In advance of his appearance, we spoke to the director about Killer of Sheep's staying power and how art's simple acts effect social change.
Film classes still show Killer of Sheep as an example of great filmmaking. What have you heard from people as far as why it's so enduring?
Charles Burnett: I know it's taught in film a lot and in classrooms but I'm trying to remember what conversations I've had with people. Some people have said it opened their eyes to a new way of shooting film and some have said it was because of the film they got involved with filmmaking.
I was surprised the film did what it did and is doing what it's doing because it was a student film.
What did you set out to do with this film?
CB: It was a protest against certain kinds of films that were being made at the time. And it gave an impression of what the community I lived in was about. I didn't want to do it as a conventional story with a beginning and middle and end. I wanted to let people get some insight into the problems in the community. It was all part of an era where film and social change was a big issue ... but it was supposed to get at it in a holistic way ... Also it was able to demystify filmmaking in the community because kids from the neighborhood worked on the film. They recorded the sound and helped with the lighting.
You said it was in protest to other films being made at the time. Hollywood films?
CB: It was that, and it was that films were still not capturing what black lives were like. It was all stereotypical. And then black exploitation came along and that was another distortion in some ways because it focused on superheroes and drugs and things like that. And the kind of people I grew up with, they were just trying to eke out a living. They were just trying to maintain a certain moral perspective and raise their family and [maintain their] work ethic, so those are the people I wanted to celebrate and honor in the film.
At the time, people were still suffering from the results of Birth of a Nation. That's where a lot of people got their ideas, I suppose, about the black community, about who we are as people. So the group of us who came to the film department, our goal was to make films that reflected the reality of the community—to help make social change. And we made the films because of the love of it.
The music you chose was wonderful—Paul Robeson, Faye Adams, Dinah Washington's heartbreaking "This Bitter Earth." But you had to wait a while to get the music rights. Why was that important to you?
CB: I listened to that music when I was younger ... and I really liked it at a certain point, to a point where I wanted to preserve it, and I used the film as a means of doing that. The music lends itself to the emotion of certain elements of the story, and because it was a student film and you didn't have to have the rights because there were no plans of screening it commercially, it wasn't an issue. Then when Milestone got involved and they wanted to distribute the film, they had to get the rights to the music. And we all wanted to keep the music that was sort of married to the film so they had to work very hard to come up with the money and buy the rights.
What were you reading or seeing in film that did inspire you at the time?
CB: I had taken a lot of creative writing classes and I had a really wonderful teacher ... when I was a junior in college. The books and poems she recommended were really helpful in many ways. I started reading a lot because of that—Dorothy Parker, William Carlos Williams. But I think the main thing was, international films were a part of the scene. There were a lot of foreign film and art houses where you could see all these wonderful films being released here basically at the same time they were being released in Europe. Los Feliz Theatre was a big showcase for art film and so we were always at some place like that.
Are you working on anything right now?
CB: Yeah, I'm trying to finish up this documentary on integrating hospitals. It's a part of the civil rights movement people don't really know about because it was very quiet but essential and probably one of the most important movements in American history. So we're working on that and we're almost done with it.
With movements like Black Lives Matter, do you think there's more art addressing social change?
CB: I hope so. Ava DuVernay's film 13th, a documentary film, opened the New York Film Festival and it got great reviews. It's about the 13th Amendment and how it was used to imprison people and continues slavery in the states, just in a different form. It's incumbent on artists to talk about these things. Somebody has to do it. And if you want to live in this world and make it decent there are certain things we have to be passionate about to make change. But sometimes the simplest things, the things that don't seem to have a political stance, create change even more.
I noticed that with Killer of Sheep. The social issues are there, in the background, but what makes it powerful and easy to empathize with is that it's about very specific people.
CB: We grow up with Hollywood films and propaganda films where they distort other nations and cultures. I remember watching how they treated the Japanese in those films. But when I saw a movie made by a Japanese filmmaker I was so amazed at how human it felt. Propaganda films limit your scope on humanity. And so it was seeing foreign films and having their voice told by themselves—not by someone else—that was really an eye-opener for me.
To Sleep with Anger screens at the Roxy Fri., Sept. 7, at 6 PM. Killer of Sheep screens Sat., Oct. 8, at 7 PM. Each screening is followed by a Q&A with Charles Burnett. Visit themontanafilmfestival.org for ticket and schedule info.