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Charles Burnett’s KILLER OF SHEEP examines black life in postwar America

Charles Burnett’s KILLER OF SHEEP examines black life in postwar America

Museum of the Moving Image
35th Ave. at 36th St., Astoria
Friday, February 8, $12, 7:00

In 2007, Milestone Films restored and released Charles Burnett’s low-budget feature-length debut, Killer of Sheep, with the original soundtrack intact; the film had not been available on VHS or DVD for decades because of music rights problems that were finally cleared. (The soundtrack includes such seminal black artists as Etta James, Dinah Washington, Little Walter, and Paul Robeson.) Shot on weekends for less than $10,000, Killer of Sheep took four years to put together and another four years to get noticed, when it won the FIPRESCI Prize at the 1981 Berlin Film Festival. Reminiscent of the work of Jean Renoir and the Italian neo-Realists, the film tells a simple story about a family just trying to get by, struggling to survive in their tough Watts neighborhood in the mid-1970s. The slice-of-life scenes are sometimes very funny, sometimes scary, but always poignant, as Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders) trudges to his dirty job in a slaughterhouse in order to provide for his wife (Kaycee Moore) and children (Jack Drummond and Angela Burnett). Every day he is faced with new choices, from participating in a murder to buying a used car engine, but he takes it all in stride. The motley cast of characters, including Charles Bracy and Eugene Cherry, is primarily made up of nonprofessional actors with a limited range of talent, but that is all part of what makes it all feel so real. Killer of Sheep was added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 1989, the second year of the program, making it among the first fifty to be selected, in the same group as Rebel Without a Cause, The Godfather, Duck Soup, All About Eve, and It’s a Wonderful Life, which certainly puts its place in history in context. Killer of Sheep will be screening on February 8 as part of the Museum of the Moving Image series “Changing the Picture” and “L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema,” focusing on films that look at the real black experience in postwar America, continuing through February 24 with such other films as Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, Haile Gerima’s Bush Mama, Jamaa Fanaka’s Emma Mae (Black Sister’s Revenge), Zeinabu irene Davis’s Compensation, and Billy Woodberry’s Bless Their Little Hearts.

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