It's a surreal notion, spending your days promoting a film you made 30 years ago.
"It's embarrassing because people have asked me about certain things and I have to pause because I can't remember," says director Charles Burnett of the 1977 film Killer of Sheep he made three decades ago.
Burnett, who also directed To Sleep with Anger and The Glass Shield, created an American independent classic with his gentle, observational slice of black life in Killer of Sheep. The film centers on Stan (played by Vietnam vet Henry G. Sanders), a weary slaughterhouse worker living in the impoverished Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts who has sunk into a brutal depression.
The film was an intensely poetic vision of the American experience, and was about as far away from the blaxploitation films dominating grindhouse screens of the day as possible. Burnett and his peers wanted "to counter the stereotypical images of black people," he says, while making great cinema.
After a 2007 theatrical and DVD release, Killer of Sheep is finally having its cable debut on Atlanta-based Turner Classic Movies. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day (Jan. 21), TCM will reaffirm its reputation for exceptionally idiosyncratic, film-savvy programming when it airs Killer of Sheep and a slate of Burnett's short films: "The Horse," "My Brother's Wedding," "When It Rains" and "Several Friends."
And for a director who was once called "the nation's least-known great director" by the New York Times, it's just another trip down memory lane on a winter afternoon in Atlanta. At 63, Burnett looks decades younger. He's taping an interview with TCM's host, Robert Osborne. The men sit on overstuffed chairs in a faux living room within a cavernous sound stage. A hive of producers and cameramen and sound guys and publicists beat like moths at the perimeter.
Considering Killer of Sheep and Burnett's own outsized, heroic legend, it's strange to finally meet Burnett in the flesh. Folded into one of those vast chairs, Burnett is a near-miniature. His voice is tiny, too, so faint it barely engages the audio levels on the tape recorder placed next to him.
When Burnett made Killer of Sheep, he was still a graduate student at UCLA, studying alongside such celebrated American indies as Julie Dash, Haile Gerima and Larry Clark. Most were trying to stay in school as long as they could to have access to UCLA's equipment. Originally made as his thesis film for less than $10,000, Killer of Sheep was the definition of independent film: made for love and not money. "Now when you talk about film schools, they say they only want to know how to get a big picture deal," Burnett laments.
An artist rather than a savvy businessman, Burnett never bothered to pay for the music rights for some of the songs that appear in Killer of Sheep by such music legends as Paul Robeson and Dinah Washington. The expense of clearing those music rights eventually kept the film out of the public eye for decades. Finally, boutique distributor Milestone stepped in to buy the rights and release Killer of Sheep in theaters. That investment paid off in a press feeding frenzy. Critics elbowed each other out of the way to heap praise on the film. Killer of Sheep became one of 2007's most buzzed-about films, named one of the year's top 10 by Time alongside the more freshly vinted Atonement and No Country for Old Men.
Osborne calls Killer of Sheep "one of the greatest success stories of all time."
"I thought at some point it was over," says Burnett of the film that refuses to die or diminish. In an age when so much of film culture seems to be fading away as consistently as the great directors, the re-release of Killer of Sheep was the most uplifting film story of 2007, a reminder that great film could live again.
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