ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Now the story of a legendary film by a legendary African-American filmmaker, a film that very few audiences have ever been able to see. Charles Burnett's "Killer of Sheep" began 30 years ago as a student project. Critics have hailed "Killer of Sheep" as one of the masterpieces of American filmmaking and it led to a MacArthur genius grant for Burnett. But it's been tied up in legal limbo since it was made in 1977.
Howie Movshovitz of Colorado Public Radio reports that now for the first time the film will be release commercially to movie theaters around the country.
HOWIE MOVSHOVITZ: "Killer of Sheep" is a portrait of life in South Central Los Angeles, where filmmaker Charles Burnett grew up and where he still lives.
(Soundbite of movie, "Killer of Sheep")
Unidentified Man (Actor): (As character) You are not a child anymore. You soon will be a damn man. Now start learning what life is about now, son.
MOVSHOVITZ: The movie centers on a man who tries to live a decent life but struggles to support his family with a job he despises at a slaughterhouse. When Burnett began work on "Killer of Sheep," he was a student at the UCLA film school, but his goal was not a career in Hollywood.
Mr. CHARLES BURNETT (Director, "Killer of Sheep"): There was a small chance this film would be seen in the community. It was never meant to be screened theatrically.
MOVSHOVITZ: Burnett came to filmmaking as a young civil rights worker who wanted to set the record straight on how poor people live.
Mr. BURNETT: There's a lot of talk about films, about making films for the working class and things like that, and the films that were done about the working class were made by people who were far removed from that, in fact quite well off. But the intentions were good, and it was the sort of films about, you know, being exploited by the management and things like that, and if you join a union and everything would be, you know, okay after that. But the people I knew were far from having those problems solved by just one simple solution. It was much more complex.
MOVSHOVITZ: The complexity in Burnett's films often comes out in human relationships. In "To Sleep With Anger," Danny Glover plays a distant relative from Mississippi who comes to Los Angeles and nearly undoes his family. "The Annihilation of Fish" presents James Earl Jones and Lynn Redgrave as aging inhabitants of a rooming house who fall in love.
But Burnett planned "Killer of Sheep" more like a community organizer than a film director. Most of the actors and crew came from Burnett's Los Angeles neighborhood and had never worked on movies before. He taught neighborhood kids how to use the sound recorders and how to act for the screen.
(Soundbite of children playing)
MOVSHOVITZ: On the other hand, Burnett shot the film in a black and white style influenced by the French directors he had encountered in film school.
Mr. BURNETT: I remember the first director that really impacted me was Jean Renoir. And I didn't even know who he was or anything. I just saw a film called "Southerner," and it was about these tenant farmers in Texas. It was a black and white sort of story. I mean black and white in the sense it was black character and a white character, families. And it was the first time I've ever seen a film where blacks and whites were treated on an equal footing and it was sort of a shared stage. And I thought it was very different. You don't find that in American films.
MOVSHOVITZ: Burnett says his eyes were really opened when he saw the work of the celebrated director from Senegal, Ousmane Sembene, which showed African people filmed from an African perspective. Burnett says he'd never seen black people on screen presented as human beings. The experience made him see the possibilities for his own movies.
Lisa Kennedy, film critic of the Denver Post, says Burnett's able to capture the poetry of everyday life in South Central. She compares "Killer of Sheep" to Walt Whitman's great poems.
Ms. LISA KENNEDY (Film Critic, Denver Post): I think that when you get place right, you sort of also speak to what's still extraordinary about this country. So it's almost like you get this kind of a visual version of a "Leaves of Grass" experience where something is really celebrated.
MOVSHOVITZ: "Killer of Sheep" takes place in kitchens, bedrooms, alleys and the open fields where boys throw dirt bombs at passing freight trains. Kennedy says that in these details Charles Burnett conveys the sense of an African-American life lived.
Ms. KENNEDY: And it's not something that necessarily gets said in the dialogue, though it's said by the rhythms of the dialogue. But it's also seen in - there's this moment where the little girl is singing to the Earth, Wind and Fire "Reasons," as her mom - and I think she's actually singing to a doll. And it's just the way in which it's framed. It just feels like family.
(Soundbite of movie, "Killer of Sheep")
MOVSHOVITZ: It's that music that kept "Killer of Sheep" off movie screens for 30 years. The film included 22 songs, all under copyright, by such noted musicians as Lowell Folsom, Dinah Washington and Paul Robeson.
Burnett never bothered to get those songs licensed. So "Killer of Sheep" was shown only on the sly - on college campuses and at the occasional film festival.
But seven years ago, Dennis Doros of Milestone Films learned that the film archive at Burnett's old school, UCLA, was restoring "Killer of Sheep." Doros decided to try to clear the music rights and release the movie commercially. But he says it took until now because each copyright holder demanded the same financial deal.
Mr. DENNIS DOROS (Milestone Films): When you're clearing music rights in this quantity, you have to give what's called a favored nation's clause, which means when you sign a contract with somebody you're promising to pay them the best deal that you're paying anybody. And all 18 companies had this deal, and so we had to keep calling and calling until everybody was able to come down to the same price we needed.
MOVSHOVITZ: In the end, Doros says he was able to clear rights for all but one song at a total cost of a $150,000 - a tremendous amount for a small company to pay.
Enter filmmaker Steven Soderbergh. The director of "Sex, Lies, and Videotape" and "Ocean's Eleven" heard about the "Killer of Sheep" project and offered a substantial gift towards paying for the music rights.
(Soundbite of song "This Bitter Earth")
Ms. GLADYS KNIGHT (Jazz Artist): (Singing) This bitter Earth. Well, what fruit it bears.
MOVSHOVITZ: Filmmaker Charles Burnett stands outside of the mainstream of his art. He's never made the films about L.A. gang life that Hollywood expects from African-American filmmakers.
Mr. BURNETT: I was offered two or three times some commercial films and I sort of shot myself in the foot because it's something, you know, you just - I mean you have to feel passionate about doing something. You know, if you don't, you just feel numb. You know, you just can't do it.
MOVSHOVITZ: Burnett goes back to the reasons he made "Killer of Sheep," his first feature film. He wanted to try to show life as it really is for most African-Americans in Los Angeles.
Mr. BURNETT: I remember taking my films around, "To Sleep with Anger" and things like that, and I remember people asking, you know, well, where are the drugs? Why isn't there more, you know, violence and this sort of thing in your movie? And I didn't know black people had washing machines. I didn't know black people were, you know, other than seeing them as pimps and prostitutes and stuff like that, you know, people have a distortion of who people of color are. That was the whole point of not being a part of the problem but a part of the solution.
And I think a lot of us who came up during that period sort of was indoctrinated by that and it's sort of hard to change, you know.
MOVSHOVITZ: "Killer of Sheep" broke with those stereotypes 30 years ago, and filmmaker Charles Burnett thinks it still holds up. Those who have seen it would likely agree with him.
For NPR News, I'm Howie Movshovitz.