Published Feb 02, 2013Though screened very rarely outside of underground circuits and its initial festival run, Killer of Sheep, Charles Burnett's wildly independent debut film—shot while he was a grad-student at UCLA—has established an esteemed notoriety and critical reputation. In its time, this enigmatic study of social ennui and the imposed invisible barriers of class systems and geography in South Central Los Angeles, played as an avant-garde work of sorts; intriguing for its sheer ingenuity and authentic, ingenuous portrayal of people barely trudging forward more on instinct than will.
Stylistically, Burnett frames his guided improvisations with a post-neorealist, alterna-doc eye, utilizing bizarre close-ups and low angles to witness action that rarely seems to have a set destination. His protagonist, Stan (Henry G. Sanders), works at an abattoir—hence the title—but shows little interest in his wife (Kaycee Moore) or much of anything other than fixing his friend's car and reluctantly performing household handyman duties, which Burnett often captures with an almost sexual, objectifying eye.
Outside the children travel in packs, jumping on roofs and having rock fights, whimsically ignoring the dangerous implications of their casual shenanigans. In such, their carefree attitude, which eventually succumbs to the banal, yet bizarre (Burnett has a propensity for capturing the piecemeal aspect of their surroundings, like cars without windshields), reality of an adult life, is like that of the sheep that Stan chases down for slaughter.
The oppressor is that of life rather than anything specifically political, adding existential indifference to a text that initially might seem like an exploration of social subjugation. These characters are less victims than they are just people surviving with the unspoken knowledge that life is what it is. The lack of glamour merely makes childish hope and idealism less of a distraction.
And while the juxtaposition of scenes doesn't specifically guide a telling narrative, Burnett's musical selections—including Dinah Washington and Paul Robeson, to name a couple—often spell out the intention of any given scene; especially those shown within the abattoir. Oddly enough, the inclusion of these songs is, in part, why Killer of Sheep has received such limited exposure—Burnett never obtained clearance to use them prior to screening the film in festivals.
In a modern context, Charles Burnett's directorial debut is mostly intriguing for the time it captured—late '70s South Central L.A.—giving a cinematic framework for a minor movement—mostly emulated by Burnett's UCLA classmates at the time—and capturing a place before the populist urban films of the late '80s and early '90s gave it a very different aesthetic and feeling.
Killer of Sheep screens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox as part of the LA Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema retrospective at 1pm on February 2nd, 2013, and will feature an introduction from Cameron Bailey. (Milestone Film)