I found it easy to understand why Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep was among the first 100 films named to the United States National Film Registry after seeing it at Cinemathque this evening.
The preservation organization operated by the Library of Congress selected this 1977 film directed by Charles Burnett alongside classics like It's a Wonderful Life and The Godfather as an essential milestone in American cinema. It's rarely been seen, though, due to difficulties in securing the rights for its music.
That's one big reason Wisconsin Film Festival organizers jumped at the chance to screen Killer of Sheep, which was recently restored and converted to a 35 mm print by UCLA, where Burnett originally created the movie in the early '70s. Though it wasn't the official opening film of the festival tonight, it was the first to be shown. Pre-sale tickets for the screening sold out weeks ago, and the Cinemathque at the UW Vilas Hall was commensurately filled to capacity.
The film, which was shot in black and white and transferred from the visibly worn 16 mm original reels, was introduced by James Kreul, one of the founders of the Wisconsin film fest and a professor of cinema at UNC-Wilmington. He described Killer of Sheep as a "wonderful way to start the festival."
Indeed, it was, the film living up to its reviews as a seminal work about the African-American experience. In this case, Killer of Sheep told a personal story about a family living in south-central Los Angeles, primarily through the daily challenges faced by a weary father working at a slaughterhouse. It was also a tale contrasting the bittersweet difference between dusty childhood play and the competing tensions faced by grown-ups, especially in the fetid confines of an abattoir where mortality is an ever-present reminder.
Above all, though, is the issue of race, that defining characteristic of American culture. For someone whose primary exposure in pop culture to the issues and geography explored in the film is through generation-specific movies like Boyz n tha Hood and music personified by NWA (not to mention the neo-ploitation boilerplate offered by Tarantino and a variety of shock-seeking comedians good and bad), Killer of Sheep was certainly the landmark that it was promised to be.
The reasons filmgoers attended the screening were varied. Madison-based filmmaker John Feith said festival technical advisor Erik Gunneson recommended it to him, while UW research specialist Paul Creswell said "it's all about the soundtrack." The music throughout was exquisite, voyaging through the nearly the entirety of modern African-American music up to the time of the film's creation, from Scott Joplin's "Solace" to Earth, Wind & Fire.
Throughout the screening, the crowd was engaged, laughing occasionally at the more absurd and tender moments created by Burnett, and applauding at its close. It was a good way to start the festival.