(Dir. Charles Burnett, United States, 1978)
Charles Burnett’s masterpiece Killer of Sheep belongs to that rare class of films that are today more famous for the number of people who have not seen them than from the praise of those who have. Despite opening to critical accolades on the festival circuit back in 1978, the film failed to receive distribution due to the sheer cost of licensing the many songs Burnett beautifully utilized to accompany his contemplative work. And, while these stories of unseen great films of the past – Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day and Melville’s Army of Shadows similarly come to mind – may entice us to exaggerate or elevate a film’s actual status or impact, it’s important to note just how significant Burnett’s film was and still is today. (Thankfully, too, it finally found distribution in 2007 – better late than never!)
Yes, Killer of Sheep carries the signifier of African-American cinema because of its director’s race and the near exclusive casting of black actors. And yes, it is important to view Burnett’s film through this lens because it does represent a break from the blaxploitation flicks and the stereotypical supporting roles for African-Americans in mainstream cinema that has been (and sadly still is) the norm for black representation in Hollywood since the industry’s inception. But, it no longer becomes helpful to view Killer of Sheep in this light, when we inappropriately label it the black art film, for these backhanded compliments form a type of ghettoization themselves. There are so few African-American filmmakers to begin with, and the ones who often get attention are notoriously B-movie torchbearers (perhaps most famously Tyler Perry), so critics cherry-pick Burnett’s film and Lee’s Do the Right Thing as the token black films for the canon and call it a day. But, to see Killer of Sheep as just a black film (similarly as reductive as viewing Tropical Malady as just a queer film or Jeanne Dielman as just a feminist film) is to miss the wide-reaching richness of emotional depth and artistic expression Burnett achieves here. For the film is not merely an African-American experience (though it certainly is that), but it’s also such a genuine human experience that it could resonate with any viewer.
Following in the steps of John Cassavetes – who’s typically attributed with pioneering American independent film – Burnett champions the low-budget, neorealist approach with Killer of Sheep, a film that he submitted as his Master’s thesis at UCLA’s School of Film. As such, it also represents a true auteurist work with Burnett writing, directing, producing, and even shooting the project. The filmmaker intended it to be a realistic depiction of urban African-Americans in Los Angeles’ poverty-stricken Watts district a little more than a decade after the infamous race riots of ’65 that claimed 34 lives and incurred $40 million worth of property damage in the area. But, instead of focusing on one central storyline, the film is essentially without plot, comprised of vignettes of quotidian activity. Boys roughhouse in an abandoned train yard, a little girl sings along to her radio while playing with dolls, neighbors congregate on each other’s front steps, and, in one of the film’s most iconic sequences, a group of teens jump across the roofs of local buildings – the camera capturing their mischief from underneath.
At the center of these mundane routines is Stan (Henry G. Sanders) a man who’s become disillusioned with his job at a slaughterhouse and subsequently his life at home. His seemingly meager existence weighs heavily on him, and his melancholy demeanor begins to burden his doting wife (a remarkable Kaycee Moore) who can’t seem to get him to smile anymore. Over the course of the film, Stan is invited to join a couple of friends in some presumably criminal act, is propositioned by a white storeowner, and tries to buy a car engine with another friend only to lose it off the back of the truck after lugging it all the way downstairs and into the truck bed. In between these episodes, Stan dismissively resists the advances of his concerned wife and remains defensive about his position in society. At one point he insists that he’s not poor in response to a friend’s flippant remark, but he’s clearly unsatisfied with his blue-collar job nonetheless.
Brilliantly shot in stark black and white and exquisitely accompanied by a host of pop songs from heralded African-American artists through the ages, the film invites contemplative viewing with its gentle pacing and unhurried narrative. With Killer of Sheep, Burnett crafts a poignant collage of urban life without relying on the many tropes – gang violence, savior-like white characters, white villains, climactic deaths (both tragic and redemptive) – of similarly themed studies on inner-city living. Instead, he offers an honest portrait of one man and the real feelings and situations he faces as a black man in 1970s America. Not much changes for Stan over the course of the film, but he does begin to soften toward his wife and children toward film’s end. But, again, Burnett is not primarily concerned with the character arc of his protagonist, opting instead to offer a snapshot of what the man’s life looks like on any given day. Thus, Killer of Sheep is on a short list of films that so artistically capture everyday life, simultaneously hitting close to home for viewers and captivating them with its maker’s unique and daring vision.