Killer of Sheep
Long-lost indie provides raw, unfiltered look at working-class life
By Devin D. O’Leary
Killer of sheep
Directed by Charles Burnett
Cast: Henry G. Sanders, Kaycee Moore
Shot in 1973 by then UCLA film school student Charles Burnett, Killer of Sheep has become something of a lost classic of American cinema. The film was shot on weekends over the course of an entire year on a budget of less than $10,000. It wasn’t finished until 1977, and only saw a cursory college/film fest release in the early ’80s. By 1990, however, the film had built up a solid reputation and was declared a national film treasure by the Library of Congress, which enshrined it among the first 50 films in the National Film Registry. In 2002, the National Society of Film Critics selected it as one of the 100 essential films of all time.
Despite such highbrow accolades, the film remained more talked about than viewed. Some of this was due to expensive music rights for songs on the film’s soundtrack, which kept it from wide distribution. But now, 30 years and counting later, Burnett’s film has received a long-overdue restoration by the UCLA Film & Television Archive and is finally making its way into theaters across America.
The film was shot on location in Los Angeles’ Watts neighborhood with a mostly amateur cast, much handheld camera work, plenty of natural sound and a script that seems largely improvisational. Those used to today’s inner city cinema (Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing or F. Gary Gray’s Friday, for example) will find a very different tone on display in Burnett’s work. Killer of Sheep concentrates its languid, cinema vérité camera lens on Stan (Henry G. Sanders), a working-class father who is slowly “working himself into his own hell” (as he puts it) at a local slaughterhouse trying to provide for his family. Those expecting a gritty urban tale of drugs, poverty and survival will have to adjust their expectations quickly. The film is by and large plotless, focussing, instead, on the slow and steady rhythms of everyday life: Children organize a neighborhood dirt clod fight, men play dominoes on a kitchen table, a little girl sings along to a song on the radio, a mother checks her appearance in the lid of a cooking pot.
With his mundane story, his rough camerawork and his disinterest in symbolism and metaphor, it’s easy to see that Burnett is reaching for the same sort of vivid social authenticity the Italian neo-realist movement brought to the table. It would be easy to namedrop hallmarks like Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thieves or Fellini’s I Vitelloni by way of comparison (although Burnett cites even more obscure films like Basil Wright’s Songs of Ceylon and Jean Renoir’s The Southerner as primary influences). Killer of Sheep’s stark black and white photography (originally shot in 16mm and seen in sharp 35mm for the first time here) also brings to mind the vivid visual contrast of director Anthony Mann (T-Men, Raw Deal, Side Street). ... Sorry to get all film school on you, but Killer of Sheep is a film that demands this sort of informed dialogue.
Burnett’s indie achievement seems even greater in retrospect, in fact. At the time it was made, blaxploitation was making urban cinema chic. Burnett ignored every exploitative element at his fingertips to provide a picture not so much about inner city life or the black experience in America but about simple, working class existence in all its raw, microscopic detail.
Stan is clearly a man of intelligence, decency and pride. “I’m not poor,” he declares at one point. “We donate stuff to the Salvation Army.” Still, we see how much this life of day-to-day subsistence has drained out of him. Scenes of his work (shot in an actual California slaughterhouse) are numbingly real. At home, there are hints of discomfort and dissatisfaction. “You know I never sleep,” Stan tells a friend. At one point, he spurns his wife’s advances. (Why? We’re not quite privy to that.) Mostly, though, he just sits and stares into space, too tired to even converse with those around him.
Mericifully, Killer of Sheep doesn’t burden Stan with carrying the film’s narrative. This isn’t one man’s story. Over the course of a slim 80 minutes, we see a wide range of people in the neighborhood, all of varying degrees of intelligence and morality. Killer of Sheep doesn’t waste time preaching about good and bad, it simply points its lens out the window and allows everyday life to pass by.
Burnett’s dogged determination to avoid a narrative combined with the film’s low-rent technical nature (bad sound and the occasional clunky acting) are certainly enough to frighten off casual viewers. But for the patient, there are jewels in the dirt. We have, for example, Burnett’s lovely found camera angles and the haunting soundtrack (which ended up costing $150,000 to clear). Mixing everything from Paul Robeson to Earth, Wind & Fire, the music brings to mind the works of Stanley Kubrick (Dr. Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange, especially) in its ability to juxtapose image and sound for maximum irony.
Like the wretch in “Amazing Grace,” Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep once was lost but now is found. It’s a classic, if occasionally challenging tone poem perfectly tuned toward anyone interested in history, both cultural and cinematic.
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