Made during the malaise-filled time between the soaring rhetoric and grand plans of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America,” Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1978) refutes such simplistic and sentimental perspectives by presenting an unflinching analysis of the realities of these worldviews. The promise of racial equality, tantalizingly glimpsed with the signing of the Civil Rights Act (1964), had been consumed in the fires of anger and despair emerging from urban chaos of Watts in 1965. The Vietnam War had bitterly divided the nation politically, while, economically, manufacturing—long a prime source of employment—continued to erode. The existence of those anonymous millions trapped between these rocks and hard places is the subject of Burnett’s film, a work that epitomizes W.E.B. Dubois’s dictum that the artist must become the propagandist, to dare to demonstrate the realities that the ruling powers would seek to hide.
In this seminar, we will examine the artistry of Burnett’s film in relation to the arguments of Dubois, Orwell, and Marx, while also considering the film’s renewed relevance in the early 21st century as America struggles with rising levels of economic marginalization, student debt, and the repercussions of the war on drugs, among other issues.
Cinema Classics Seminars offer an entertaining and engaging way to learn more about some of the true classics of world cinema. Students receive an introductory lecture before the film and a guided discussion after the film. In addition, your ticket to see it on the big screen, as well as popcorn and a drink, are included.