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Landmark 'Killer of Sheep' Finally Headed to DVD

22 Sep, 2007 By: Billy Gil

Charles Burnett

Killer of Sheep serves as a stunning reversal of marginalization of blacks in cinema. Far removed from the flash of such 1970s Blaxploitation films as Shaft and Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, the 1977 film, written, directed, produced and shot by then UCLA film student Charles Burnett, told of a sensitive slaughterhouse worker and his family in Watts, Calif., in a loose series of neorealist-style vignettes.

Although the film won the Critics' Award at the Berlin Film Festival and was inducted into the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 1990, music rights to several songs in the film kept it from being released on DVD until Milestone Film bought the rights in 2000 and fought to clear them with rights owners. After clearing nearly all the music rights (save for “Unforgettable,” by Diana Ross, according to Burnett), Milestone held several screenings of the film in 2007 to universal acclaim.

Nov. 13 (prebook Oct. 17) Milestone, through New Yorker Video, presents Killer of Sheep: The Charles Burnett Collection, at $39.95. The DVD carries the phrase “Steven Soderbergh Presents,” indicative of the Ocean's Thirteen director's involvement in helping to fund the lengthy process of clearing music rights.

“For Milestone, I think they looked at his name as a bit of cache,” Burnett said. “It's kind of nice to have his name attached to your film.”

The two-DVD set features a new high-definition transfer from the UCLA Film & Television Archive's 35mm restoration. Additionally, the set includes both the original theatrical version and director's cut of Burnett's 1983 film My Brother's Wedding, which never got a theatrical release due to mixed reviews at film festivals after Burnett faced issues with a wayward lead actor and had to rush a cut of the film.

“What we basically did was go in and trim things down,” Burnett said (the director's cut is 82 minutes, compared to the original release's 115 minute running time). “I think this will be much closer to what I had intended, to some extent.

“It's not perfect, but it works. I can watch it now.”

The set also includes three older short films by Burnett and one new short on Hurricane Katrina, called “Quiet as Kept”; as well as a commentary track on Killer of Sheep with Burnett and film scholar Richard Pena; a documentary with the cast by film archivist Ross Lipman; a trailer; and liner notes by film critic Armond White.

For Burnett, having his films on DVD means he can sidestep Hollywood convention.

“People can order it, and you don't have to hear, ‘Where's the market?' People come to it.

“With DVD, it can sit on the shelf forever and still make money. People can take time to look for things and discover them.”

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