A 'Killer' success

His first film obsessed critics and movie buffs, but that hasn't made it easy for Charles Burnett, a guest at this week's Jerusalem Film Festival, to find support for other projects.

charless burnet 88 (photo credit: )
charless burnet 88
(photo credit: )
It's hard to imagine a movie director more soft-spoken and self-effacing than Charles Burnett, who at times seems as if he would rather admire the Old City view from the lobby of the Mt. Zion Hotel than talk about his film, Killer of Sheep, which was shown Monday afternoon at this week's Jerusalem Film Festival. His reticence is even more surprising given that, although he is certainly not a household name, Killer of Sheep, which he made 30 years ago as his MFA thesis at the UCLA film school, is a legendary work, at least among serious film buffs. The film, set in the African-American Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, tells the story of Stan, a sensitive, insomniac family man who works in a slaughterhouse. It's also a portrait of Watts and Stan's complex network of family and friends. In spite of the gritty background and subject matter, though, the black-and-white film is both compellingly realistic and startlingly lyrical at the same time. Due to copyright problems with the music on the soundtrack (which includes mostly classic blues songs), this unique film has never been shown commercially until very recently. But that didn't stop it from garnering a nearly unprecedented stream of honors wherever it was shown in non-profit forums. In 1981, it won the Critics' Prize at the Berlin Film Festival; in 1990, the Library of Congress placed it among the first 50 films entered in its National Film Registry; and in 2002 the National Society of Film Critics selected it as one of the 100 Essential Films of all time. The critical accolades are also endless. Calling the film "a masterpiece," Dave Kehr of the International Herald Tribune described it as "[o]ne of the most insightful and authentic dramas about African-American life on film. One of the finest American films, period." But while Burnett is happy to be at the Jerusalem Film Festival, he says it was hard to sit through the film again. "I don't like watching the film," Burnett says a bit, well, sheepishly. Is it because it's hard to notice the parts he would do differently now? He shrugs. "That, and just, I've seen it so many times. I think I've spent one or two years of my life watching it at screenings." But he is game to talk about it one more time. Burnett, 63, grew up in Watts and says the film has many autobiographical elements, although he never worked in a slaughterhouse himself. "I wanted to give him [the character] an unusual job, one that would give him nightmares. It's more than just a symbol," says Burnett. In some ways, the film was a reaction against the social realism of the films many of his fellow UCLA students were making at the time. "They were making the same film. It was about the exploitation of the working class, and then a union would come in," he says. But in Burnett's neighborhood, "Getting a job was hard enough. I wanted to show that reality ... I didn't want to offer a solution. I wanted the audience to think about what they would do to change things." In spite of the film's huge success among those who were lucky enough to see it, Burnett's subsequent career has been a long struggle to get his projects funded. The director trained as an electronics technician before going to UCLA. Since graduating from film school, he has supported himself and his family by working at a Los Angeles talent agency "where they were always very flexible about letting me take time off to make my movies." When I ask whether it is harder for an African-American director to get his films made, he answers "definitely" but says he feels the larger obstacle he faced was convincing producers to fund films "that were not mainstream enough, not going to make any money." His best-known film, apart from Killer, is To Sleep With Anger (1990), which won the Special Jury prize at Sundance. It stars Danny Glover as a soft-spoken stranger from the South who turns out to be far more malevolent than he seems at first. But this film, in spite of its acclaim and Glover's star power, was not distributed widely, says Burnett. He then recalls how he had trouble getting financing for The Glass Shield, a drama about a black rookie cop. "Now it turns up all the time on cable TV," he says. "Wherever I go, people tell me, 'Oh, yeah, I just saw that on cable.' Someone said it was on in Israel last week. It's just so frustrating, when I think of how hard it was to get it made and now it's shown all the time." Burnett, who has just finished making a fact-based drama about Namibian politics, is certainly happy audiences all over the world still want to see Killer of Sheep, but he's definitely moved on. At his first screening at the Jerusalem Film Festival, he didn't even stick around to address the audience, although he did chat with well-wishers in the lobby. "Sometimes I feel it's time for the cut-off valve," he says, grinning. "Isn't that the definition of insanity, when you can't stop talking about one thing?"