Killer of Sheep Charles Burnett

Killer of Sheep Charles Burnett
Plot-less and episodic, but stitched together via poetic beats and a gritty, bluesy vibe, Killer of Sheep was Black Cinema’s answer to the spirit of neorealism. However, when it was completed in the late ’70s (as a thesis project for director Charles Burnett’s M.F.A. at UCLA) and shown only to festival audiences, any interest in the bleak existence of African-Americans, which is so vividly rendered in Killer of Sheep, was trumped by the illusory empowerment of blaxploitation ("sticking it to the man”) movies.

It may be fitting then that whatever anticipation the film might have inspired for a new cinematic trend was given the shaft in the same manner as those placid hopes of its central characters, the working-class blacks of L.A.’s Watts ghetto.

Shot on weekends during the mid-’70s with a shoestring budget, and littered with non-actors who so often take amateurish looks directly at the camera, Killer of Sheep is a resounding portrait of the crush of daily life for folks like Stan (Henry Gale Sanders).

An insomniac employee at a slaughterhouse, Stan kills sheep by day and counts them at night. However, Stan certainly doesn’t want anyone’s pity; he insists that he’s not poor (how could he be if he donates to the Salvation army?) and he’s eager to enjoy what small pleasures he can afford, like a quiet dance with his wife, the gentle smile of his five-year-old daughter or even the warmth of a cup of tea against his cheek, which reminds him of a woman’s forehead when making love. However, every moment of appreciation for life’s simple beauty and feeble gains fades with a numbing sense of cold disillusionment.

The film is deftly cut between lingering scenes of children playing in hollowed out concrete wastelands — its most joyful and haunting moments — and the rudimentary processes within the slaughterhouse, where the sheep contentedly flock towards their doom. It’s these moments that not only showcase Burnett’s keen eye for stark compositions but also stay lodged in the mind long after the film ends.

This might explain why some 30 years after its initial exhibition, when blaxpoitation has made way for the Barbershop movies and Burnett’s vision has found no contemporary, Killer of Sheep remains no less significant and is all the more disquieting. (Mongrel Media)