Charles Burnett's film is now a signal point in independent film history.
Killer of Sheep was shot in Watts on a budget of less than US$10,000 over roughly a year's worth of weekends in 1972 and 1973, with additional shooting in 1975. In 1977, Burnett submitted the film as his Master of Fine Arts thesis at the School of Film at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).
Though the film won the Critics' Award at the Berlin Film Festival and was acclaimed at the Toronto International Film Festival, it never saw wide release due to complications in securing the music rights for the 22 songs on the soundtrack, which included such big names as Dinah Washington, Paul Robeson, Louis Armstrong, and Earth, Wind and Fire. It remained in obscurity for nearly thirty years, garnering much critical and academic praise and earning a reputation as a lost classic.