In the box-like living room of their Watts bungalow, Stan and his wife are slow dancing to Dinah Washington’s “This Bitter Earth”:
“This bitter earth
“Well, what fruit it bears
“What good is love
“That no one shares ...”
Stan is shirtless; his wife wears a loose-fitting housedress.
As they sway, her hands flit over his body. She rests her cheek against his bare chest.
The scene is ripe with erotic potential, but it’s lost on Stan. Plagued by insomnia and a job that literally leaves him up to his knees in blood, he stares vacantly into space. Then he gently disengages and walks away.
Silhouetted against a window, his wife crumples into herself.
That is a scene from Charles Burnett’s “Killer of Sheep,” the best student movie of all time.
Some would put it on the short list of the best American films ever.
Made for $10,000 with mostly amateur actors and shot in 16mm black and white, “Killer of Sheep” was recognized as a masterpiece almost from the moment in 1977 when writer/director Burnett presented it as his graduate thesis at the UCLA f ilm school.
It went on to win the critics award at the Berlin Film Festival, and in 1990, when the Library of Congress created its Film Registry of movies vital to our cinematic culture, “Killer of Sheep” was among the first 50 titles on the list.
The problem was that it was just about impossible to see the movie.
Burnett had edited his film to a soundtrack of great recordings by the likes of Dinah Washington, Paul Robeson, Elmore James, Little Walter and Earth, Wind & Fire. He never got permission to use those tracks.
And without those clearances, “Killer of Sheep” could never be shown to paying customers or broadcast on television or sold on home video.
“For years the only way to see it was through a not-for-profit institution - a film society, a museum, a film festival,” said Amy Heller, president of Milestone Film.
Now, after a lengthy restoration and even more years wrangling over music rights, “Killer of Sheep” at last is coming to theaters. A DVD version will be released in November.
When a friend suggests that Stan is poor, he reacts with indignation.
“Man, I ain’t po’. Like, I give away things to the Salvation Army. You can’t give away nothin’ to the Salvation Army if yo’ po’.”
“Killer of Sheep” was never intended for widespread public consumption, according to the 63-year-old Burnett, who still is making movies.
“I made it to get my degree and for a very small audience,” he said in a recent phone conversation. “I saw the film as a response to how Hollywood was romanticizing the black community.”
Blaxpoitation’s world of swaggering pimps and glamorous/dangerous women bore little resemblance to the people portrayed in Burnett’s movie. “Killer of Sheep” doesn’t have a plot - just scenes from the lives of Stan, his wife, children and acquaintances. Some of these vignettes are comic. Others are sad.
At the center is Stan, a decent man worn down by his dehumanizing job in a slaughterhouse and the daily struggle of survival.
The film doesn’t seem to have been directed ... it feels as if the camera stumbled upon Stan (Henry G. Sanders), his wife (Kaycee Moore) and their family and stuck around to record their lives.
“I got into this film simply to show that these people are human beings,” Burnett said. “Hollywood had for so long perpetuated these myths and stereotypes about black Americans. I wanted to make a film that felt real.”
For the better part of a year, Burnett filmed on weekends in his Watts neighborhood, recalled Sanders, one of only two professional actors in the cast.
“On most days Charles was a one-man crew,” Sanders said in a phone call from his Los Angeles area home. “He did the camera, the lights ... he would grab a cast member and show them how to do the sound.
“When we shot the scenes of Stan working at the slaughterhouse it was just him and me. I’d do the clapboard, then put it down and get in position in front of the camera.”
Burnett cast the film with his own friends and neighbors.
“A lot of them didn’t understand the moviemaking process,” he said. “The kids actually caught on quicker than the adults. But these were my friends, and they wanted to help me succeed. I hoped to demystify filmmaking for them. Also, it wasn’t like we were in a big rush to finish the movie. It was actually a very casual sort of thing.”
Much of “Killer’s” dialogue was improvised.
Kaycee Moore, whom Burnett discovered in an L.A. acting workshop, recalls that early in the filming she wanted to quit.
“I realized my character had no name and no lines,” she recently said. “I told Charles I didn’t think I could do this. I was angry and offended. I was supposed to play this wife who never says nothing? I told Charles it just didn’t seem real to me.”
At that point Burnett was preparing to shoot a scene in which a couple of toughs try to recruit Stan to help them kill an adversary. The exchange was to take place on the stoop of Stan’s house. The camera caught Moore, who wasn’t in the scene, eavesdropping on the conversation from behind the screen door.
“Charles asked me to walk in slow, come on the porch and say what I thought this woman would say in this situation.
“So I did.”
Stan’s wife explodes when she learns that two no-good lowlifes are trying to entice her husband into a criminal enterprise. She sneers at their argument that the world is a jungle and they’re fighting to be the top animals.
The words pour out of her in a scalding stream, sometimes not even forming whole sentences:
“You talk about bein’ a man? Stand up. Don’t you know there’s more to it than just with your fists? The scars on your mug, you talk about the animal or what ... you here, you use your brain. That’s what you use. Both a you gotta lotta nerve coming over here doin’ like this.”
Moore’s improvised scene is one of the film’s highlights. After that Burnett found other moments for Stan’s wife (who never did get a name) to talk.
Moore and Sanders said they took the roles simply for experience and to build their resumes. They weren’t paid and had no idea that the project would someday be regarded as a masterpiece.
“I remember when Charles told me that they were putting it in the archives in Washington, D.C.,” said Moore, who at age 63 remains a strikingly attractive woman who can turn a simple declarative sentence into an acting workshop. “He was so happy over that.
“I thought about the film, and I was like, `Huh?’ I couldn’t picture why they would want it. Even today, what’s the deal?
“I don’t understand all the fuss about a movie about poor black folks.”
“Killer of Sheep’s” rebirth began with the film conservators at the University of California-Los Angeles. Nearly eight years ago the program decided to turn its attention to Burnett’s film, which then existed only in deteriorating 16mm prints.
“I’d seen the movie in film school many years ago and was very impressed by it,” said UCLA film archivist Ross Lipman. “We found that most copies of the movie were abysmal but that the original negative was in pretty good shape.”
In the nearly eight years he has labored over “Killer of Sheep” the movie has worked its way into his consciousness, Lipman said.
“I don’t even think of it as a student film, though of course it is. In the course of restoring a film you have to view it many times, and you really get a sense of the films that hold up for multiple viewings. `Killer of Sheep’ holds up better than almost any other movie I’ve worked on.
“With some films you’ve quickly seen enough and you just want to get the job done. But `Killer’ brings a new revelation every time I see it.”
Lipman made new 35mm prints of the film. There was no digital tinkering with the visual elements, but much time was devoted to tweaking the soundtrack to make the dialogue more audible.
Meanwhile, across the country in New Jersey, Amy Heller and her husband and business partner, Dennis Doros, were working on getting the musical clearances that would allow their Milestone Films to commercially distribute “Killer of Sheep.”
It meant sleuthing out who owned the rights to each recording and then cutting a deal to use the music in the movie.
In the end they spent nearly $100,000 on music rights, a big risk for a film that is nobody’s idea of commercial.
“Sometimes great films don’t get the attention they deserve,” Heller said. “Here’s a 30-year-old movie shot in black and white with no famous people in it. It doesn’t have a hook you can hang your hat on.
“But it’s a work of genius. So we just sucked it up and went ahead. We had to do it.”
Heller believes their faith was justified. This spring “Killer of Sheep” played for 12 weeks at one New York movie house.
Stan and his loser pal Eugene have bought a used engine for Stan’s truck. They carry the heavy engine from the seller’s apartment down a flight of stairs and place it on the tailgate of Eugene’s pickup.
Stan wants to strap it in, but Eugene says that won’t be necessary.
Of course the minute Eugene puts the truck in gear, the engine slides out and bounces down the steep street.
“Block is busted,” Eugene announces matter-of-factly. “Now it ain’t no good ... forget it.”
Stan can only stare in dismayed disbelief.
“In all my years of acting, I’ve never gotten a job because somebody came up to me and said they’d seen me in `Killer of Sheep.’”
Perhaps not, but Henry G. Sanders has had a successful career in front of the camera. He has 100 credits listed on the Internet Movie Data Base, many of them on TV series.
He was a regular on “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman,” played God on “Joan of Arcadia” and has guested on series ranging from “Murder, She Wrote” to “ER,” “L.A. Law,” “Cagney & Lacey” and “NYPD Blue.” He recently appeared opposite Sylvester Stallone in “Rocky Balboa.”
Kaycee Moore (she was named after her hometown, Kansas City) went on to act in “Bless Their Little Hearts” (written by Burnett) and in Julie Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust,” both considered classics of African-American cinema. In the early `90s she played a bag lady in director Kevin Willmott’s “Ninth Street,” filmed in Kansas City.
For 15 years she ran the Kansas City chapter of the Sickle Cell Disease Association founded by her late mother. Her acting skills, she said, came in handy at fund raising time.
A widow, Moore now resides in the Kansas City, Kan., house she inherited and lives on Social Security. She says she has never earned a cent from “Killer of Sheep.”
As for Burnett, he’s pleased his film is finally being seen but notes that life remains tough for an independent filmmaker.
He has had modest success over the years - his “To Sleep With Anger” got great reviews in 1990 - and from time to time he has directed for TV series.
“To tell the truth, the jobs are few and far between,” he said. “It’s always a struggle. It’s always about paying the bills. I’m like every one else in Hollywood, worrying about where the next job is coming from.”
Burnett even missed the premiere of the restored “Killer of Sheep” because he was in Africa working on a project that has been consuming him for years.
“I guess the problem is that I don’t have a talent for making movies I don’t care about.”
With “Killer of Sheep,” at least, he made a film that movie lovers will care about for decades to come.