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UCLA

Killer of Sheep Makes TV Debut

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By Sandy Siegel '72

Published Jan 14, 2008 3:08 PM


As a student in the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, Charles Burnett '69, M.F.A. '77 liked to take his time. Like the way he shot his graduate thesis film, Killer of Sheep — on weekends over a 12-month period.

"It was sort of leisurely, it wasn't really a rush, because I was trying to stay in school as long as I could," admits Burnett, who valued the free use of film equipment.

So maybe it's fitting that it took 30-plus years for the award-winning filmmaker's highly regarded student film — one of the first 50 cinematic works selected for the Library of Congress' National Film Registry — to get its first nationwide showcase. On Jan. 21, Killer of Sheep, a stark portrait of the day-to-day struggles of an African-American slaughterhouse worker in Watts, will air on Turner Classic Movies as part of a Martin Luther King Jr. Day tribute that includes another of Burnett's features and three shorts.

The road to Killer of Sheep's rediscovery wasn't just long, it was also bumpy. Shot in 16 mm for less than $10,000, the film was starting to deteriorate from "vinegar syndrome" when it landed at the UCLA Film & Television Archive. Preservationist Ross Lipman spent two years restoring it in 35 mm, much to Burnett's delight.

"I was very happy to get it done because there was a lot of correction that needed to be done. ... They cleaned up a lot of things, particularly the soundtrack," says Burnett, who credits Lipman with being "very faithful to the original."

See more on Burnett and Killer of Sheep here and at the film's website.

"We're not adding anything, we're not enhancing anything," says Lipman, whose work on Killer of Sheep and other independent films earned him the National Society of Film Critics' 2007 Film Heritage Award. "We're merely [pulling] out extra detail that's in Charles' photography that hadn't really been seen before."

Lipman's much-admired restoration got the attention of a distributor, who then spent six years clearing the music rights (including songs by Etta James, Dinah Washington, Gershwin, Rachmaninoff, Paul Robeson and Earth, Wind & Fire). Finally, in spring 2007, the film debuted in theaters in New York and Los Angeles, and later was released on DVD. Even more notable, it made several critics' 2007 top-ten film and DVD lists.

But it was the public's reaction at some New York showings that struck Burnett. "I was quite excited because it's an old film and it had an audience there that seemed interested in it like it was yesterday," he says. "I was quite surprised at that."

The Charles Burnett retrospective on Turner Classic Movies, starting with Killer of Sheep, begins at 5 p.m. PST (8 p.m. EST) on Monday, Jan. 21, and repeats at 9:30 p.m. PST (12:30 a.m. EST).

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