Why Charles Burnett Turned His Back On Blaxploitation: An Interview with the Filmmaker

|Todd Melby|

Working freelance doesn’t pay much, but it does afford one time. A couple of years ago, I used my ample time to create a film podcast. I titled it The Drunk Projectionist. The name sounds cool, but when it comes to movies, I’m quite sober. My movie pod hustle resulted in seven episodes, including an in-depth interview with Charles Burnett, the African-American director of Killer of Sheep, screening on 35mm to open the Trylon’s CHARLES BURNETT’S WATTS series on Nov. 3.

I saw Killer of Sheep during its commercial, art house release. Its images of children playing underneath railroad cars, jumping between buildings, riding bicycles and hanging around adults fixing sinks took my breath away. Everything felt so real. That’s because it was a reflection of Burnett’s life. Unlike his white University of Southern California classmates, Burnett grew up in Watts. While they fretted about labor unions and sexual revolution, Burnett turned his camera on his neighborhood, spending weekends filming the story of Stan, a slaughterhouse worker struggling with depression, his children and his wife.

Frustrated by money problems, Stan finds respite in moments of simple beauty: the warmth of a teacup against his cheek, slow dancing with his wife, holding his daughter. The film offers no solutions; it merely presents life — sometimes hauntingly bleak, sometimes filled with transcendent joy and gentle humor.

Critic Terrence Rafferty of GQ called Killer of Sheep “one of the most striking debuts in movie history.” The film was shot in roughly a year of weekends on a budget of less than $10,000, paid for partially by a $3,000 grant, and also out of the pocket of Burnett himself. Shot on location, the film offers an episodic narrative with gritty documentary-style cinematography. Killer of Sheep won the critic’s prize at the 1981 Berlin Film Festival and was named to the U.S. Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 1990.

According to Sally Hubbard, who wrote the program notes to the film at the 10th Festival of Preservation, “Killer of Sheep was almost impossible to see for many years, and was available only on poor quality 16mm prints. This 35mm restoration was made from the deteriorated original 16mm negative, and 16mm and 35mm soundtracks.”

— Todd Melby is a Trylon volunteer. He’s writing a book about Fargo, the 1996 Coen Brothers movie. Learn more about his interpretation of Fargo here.

See the entire schedule for the Trylon’s CHARLES BURNETT’S WATTS series here.

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