"Killer of Sheep is a story of survival. But it is also a story of what survival means for poor black people. It is a film about black particularity, expressed culturally--through games, jokes, style, speech. It offers a window into a world that few outsiders see, and it offers a reminder that for those trapped inside the four freeways that provide easy access for the National Guard to South Los Angeles, the rest of the city are outsiders. If we take seriously Burnett's statements to the effect that he made the film because he wanted to show people who were not shown on screen, and not because he had any particular audience in mind, we find a politics different from those ascribed to the film by critics. Although his examination of "minority cinemas" of Los Angeles is perhaps the most comprehensive overview of the Los Angeles school published to date, David James's argument that Killer of Sheep puts forth a "liberal humanist appeal for sympathy and understanding--if not pity--from the hegemony, rather than a historical analysis or a militant call to contestation" is wrong, as is his contention that this liberal humanism "partially explains why the film has been primarily distributed, not in the black community, but in the white institutions of liberal humanism, in festivals, schools, and museums. As Budd Schulberg noted more than a decade before Burnett finished the film, Watts has not facilities for showing movies of any kind; nor, by the mid-1970s, were there more than a handful of suitable alternative venues in which film screenings could take place. Beyond this, the lack of a black audience for the film says more about black political and aesthetic underdevelopment in the time of Mayor Bradley, Governor Reagan, and President Nixon than it suggests an affinity between the filmmaker and the cultural institutions, such as universities, that provided scant resources for the film's production. The absence of a larger audience for revolutionary black art--a subject treated at other points in this volume--hardly makes the content, form, or message of Killer of Sheep one of liberal humanism." (264)
From Daniel Widener's Black Arts West: Culture and Struggle in Postwar Los Angeles (Duke, 2010).