In the late 1960s, a group of African and African American students at the University of California, Los Angeles, responded to the dramatic social and political upheavals that surrounded them—racial injustice, schisms within the civil rights movement, liberation struggles, the escalating Vietnam War—with films that, some fifty years later, have lost none of their potency. Responding, as well, to Hollywood stereotyping and a lack of opportunity for black filmmakers and actors, Burnett and his contemporaries—Julie Dash, Haile Gerima, Billy Woodberry, and others—forged the L.A. Rebellion, an independent cinema that paved the way for subsequent women filmmakers and filmmakers of color. As in any visionary cinema, humor and tragedy—and ambivalence and conviction—coexist.
Burnett’s Killer of Sheep portrays everyday life in a barely working-class black community in Los Angeles with an authenticity and candor virtually unseen in American cinema. Combining neorealism with a kind of antic experimentation, Burnett filmed Killer of Sheep in the segregated Watts community, where in 1965 the Watts Rebellion—six days of civil unrest—erupted in response to police abuses. He shot the movie on a shoestring budget using a cast of nonprofessionals whose own lives, resilient in the face of adversity and societal invisibility, mirrored those they portrayed on-screen. Today Burnett is considered to be one of cinema’s most trenchant chroniclers of postwar American life in all its rich complexity and contradiction.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)