Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep (1977) has perhaps been more written about and appreciated than actually seen. By now there's no question that it belongs in the canon of greatest American movies. And now that the problem of song rights has been resolved, people can finally see it. Burnett had included a selection of music in the film ranging from Dinah Washington to Paul Robeson, without securing the rights. Thirty years later, all of these issues have been cleared up and UCLA has struck a new, 35mm print to be officially released in U.S. theaters for the first time. (The distributor, Milestone, will follow with a DVD release of this and other rare Burnett films.)

Seeing the film on the big screen in 2007, I can report that, yes Virginia, it's that good. If this film had been more widely available, it would have a secure place not only as the greatest achievement in African-American cinema but also as one of the great achievements in cinema, period. Burnett made the film for a reported $10,000 (mostly grant money) for his master's thesis at UCLA. It received an award at the Berlin Film Festival and was selected in 1990 for the second batch of 25 films in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry. I once heard a story about how a UCLA film professor grabbed a print of the film from the school's archive and showed it to his classroom full of cocky, know-it-all students -- effectively silencing them.

categories Reviews, Cinematical