KILLER OF SHEEP (1978)

  • Director: Charles Burnett
  • Writer: Charles Burnett
  • Starring: Henry G. Sanders, Kaycee Moore, Charles Bracy, Angela Burnett, Eugene Cherry, and Jack Drummond
  • Accolades: 2019 Slate Black Film Canon, shown at Berlin International Film Festival, shown at Toronto International Film Festival
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming with Kanopy (library app)

I have commented a few times on this site about one movie or another “feeling like a student film.” Killer of Sheep may be the first actual student film that we have covered here, though you wouldn’t necessarily know it to see it. In fact, it feels remarkably self-possessed for what was originally director Charles Burnett’s MFA thesis at UCLA. Burnett, not thinking the movie would be able to find any kind of wide distribution used a wide variety of African-American music on the soundtrack, including artists like Etta James and Earth, Wind, & Fire, much of which it proved nearly impossible to obtain the rights to. This resulted in the movie, despite winning multiple awards at major film festivals, dropping out of sight almost entirely for years, gathering a reputation as something of a lost masterpiece. However, in 2007, with the financial backing of director Steven Soderbergh, Killer of Sheep was fully restored for a theatrical and DVD rerelease. This project included a $150,000 purchase of the music rights, once and for all, meaning the movie should now be fully available for the foreseeable future.

Killer of Sheep is shot and set in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, where Burnett grew up. There is no overarching, dramatic storyline. Rather, the film consists pretty much entirely of a series of scenes in the life of one working-class Black family as they struggle to make ends meet. Henry G. Sanders plays Stan, who works long, grueling hours at a slaughterhouse, where he herds sheep onto a conveyor belt, kills them, removes their insides, all that kind of stuff. That the film is entirely in black and white makes these scenes slightly easier on the viewer, but we still get the sense of how horrible and exhausting a job this must be. Between the scenes of Stan at work we see him, tired, at home, living his life with his wife and children. He is certainly not fulfilled, but he does not yearn for fulfillment. It was never an option. Thoreau famously wrote that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” but Stan and his family are more quietly resigned than desperate. Roger Ebert said the overarching feeling of the piece is “deadening ennui.” I get that might not sound like the most fun, but if you give it a shot you may find something of yourself reflected here. I know I did.

The life of this family is more evoked than shown in a series of seemingly unrelated scenes. There are the scenes of Stan interacting with his children, one of whom decides to just wear a Halloween mask of a cartoon dog all day, and ends up getting beaten up because no one recognizes him. In one scene, two guys Stan knows try to convince him to join them in a crime, but he flatly refuses. They keep pushing, and eventually his wife comes out and backs him, and they leave. Stan excitedly buys a car motor from a junk dealer, thinking if he can fix it up and sell it he can make good money. But he and his friend don’t put it in the bed of the pick-up truck right and the engine falls out and is ruined. In one memorable sequence, the whole family piles into the car for a day out at the horse races. Soon they end up with a flat tire and, without a spare, are forced to head home, never having made it to the one fun thing they had planned.

In some ways, this is a story about how poverty seeps into every single aspect of someone’s life. Stan has a job, and his family can, for the most part, afford food and heat, and he is defiantly proud of this fact. In one scene he shouts that they are not like another family that has to crowd around the stove on cold nights because their heater doesn’t work. The implication seems to be that he can’t be completely worthless, in his own eyes, because he has at least gotten his family to the point where they don’t have to constantly worry about where their next meal is coming from. But at the same time, they can’t afford anything that would brighten anyone’s day, there are very few toys, and if something breaks it will be a long time before it’s fixed. Not to mention that whenever Stan is home, he seems exhausted. Even his smiles are tired. In the scene where he and his wife slow dance in the attic, it is to Dinah Washington’s “This Bitter Earth,” and if there is a catharsis it is not an exuberant one. 

Even at home, Stan always seems to be working on something, whether it’s fixing the sink or putting down new linoleum. I think if we are to pick up on a theme, it is that Stan feels as if he has lost control of the greater trajectory of his life. There is never a moment where he can just be himself, it is always one thing or another. This feeling ends up hanging over even the scenes with the children. They may seem carefree but are hurtling down the same, meaningless path as their parents. Maybe we are meant to see a parallel with the sheep, blindly following each other down the assembly line.

Killer of Sheep is one of those movies with a reputation far outstripping the number of people who have actually seen it, though more people have likely seen it these days than at any time previously. It is today considered one of the absolute classics of Black cinema, an African-American answer to the grounded movies about “small” people trying to live their lives directed by Vittorio De Sica or Yasujiro Ozu, the spiritual predecessor of Moonlight. Despite having been made in the 1970s, nothing here in particular dates this movie, and its black and white photography adds to something of a timeless quality. After the theatrical re-release in 2007, several national-level critics who had never had the chance to see the film before put it in their top ten list of that year, thirty years after the movie had originally come out.

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