Killer of Sheep
Written By: Charles Burnett
Killer of Sheep examines the black Los Angeles ghetto of Watts in the mid-1970s through the eyes of Stan, a sensitive dreamer who is growing detached and numb from the psychic toll of working at a slaughterhouse.
Frustrated by money problems, he finds respite in moments of simple beauty: the warmth of a coffee cup against his cheek, slow dancing with his wife in the living room, holding his daughter. The film offers no solutions; it merely presents life — sometimes hauntingly bleak, sometimes filled with transcendent joy and gentle humor.
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 Songs 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.
Despite these accolades, the film never saw popular distribution due to the expense and complication of the music rights (including songs by Etta James, Dinah Washington, Gershwin, Rachmaninov, Paul Robeson and Earth, Wind and Fire on the soundtrack) and in its rare viewings at festivals and museums it was shown on ragged 16mm prints. Now, thirty years later, the new 35mm print, restored by UCLA Film and Television Archive, is ready for its long-awaited theatrical release.
Henry Gayle Sanders
After serving for nine years in the US Army, including two tours in Vietnam, Henry Gayle Sanders returned to this country in 1969 — reluctantly. His father had died during his "harrowing" tours and he was uncertain as to what to do with his life.
While injured in the service, he had written an autobiographical novel called What Love Has Joined Together, and he resolved to move to either New York or Los Angeles to try to sell it. In the end, he chose Los Angeles ("I figured if I was going to be broke, I might as well be broke and warm.") where he adapted his novel into a play. As part of his own "self-actualization" program, he studied cinema at Los Angeles City College and took related courses at UCLA under the G.I. Bill.
It is around this time that Sanders got into acting. "That's when I began to see where my strengths were," he says, "Ultimately all of these things gave me my center. And whatever trauma I may have gone through, everything comes to bear on my work in fruitful way." Sanders' long list of films and television credits includes the 2006 film Rocky Balboa, a recurring role on Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, and guest appearances on Cagney and Lacey, Knots Landing, Perry Mason, Matlock, Murder She Wrote, ER, Miami Vice, NYPD Blue, The West Wing, and Joan of Arcadia. He lives in Los Angeles where he is currently directing a play about the Amistad trial entitled A Providential Occurrence.
Kaycee Moore had only acted in live theater before Killer of Sheep. Afterwards, she went on to star in Billy Woodbury's Bless Their Little Hearts (1984), which was written and shot by Charles Burnett. That year, she went back home to Kansas City, Missouri for a few months to help her mother start up the Kansas City chapter of the Sickle Cell Disease Association of America, and she ended up staying on, acting as Executive Director after her mother's death in 1990.
In 1991, filmmaker Julie Dash, wowed by Moore's performance in Killer of Sheep — particularly the improvised scene in which she is yelling at the characters Smoke and Scooter on the front porch — cast Moore in her 1991 film Daughters of the Dust. After filming, Moore returned to Kansas City to continue her work fighting Sickle Cell Disease. In 1994, she shared the screen with the likes of Isaac Hayes and Martin Sheen in a Kansas City independent film Ninth Street, adapted from a play of the same name. She continues to work at the Kansas City SCDAA as a grant writer and has finished a screenplay entitled Track 14, a historical drama about the Kansas City area.