Killer of Sheep: The Charles Burnett Collection

Killer of Sheep: The Charles Burnett Collection

Charles Burnett’s 1977 UCLA thesis Killer of Sheep has long been an invisible film. It was heaped with praise by the lucky few who saw it but music rights issues kept it from being commercially released and thus becoming the epoch-maker it deserved to be. Burnett has been a pariah ever since but now the rights have been cleared and Killer of Sheep can be seen as the masterpiece it is, offset by two versions of a later feature and an assortment of shorts. The main event deals with Stan, a black slaughterhouse worker hailing from Watts. There’s not a lot of narrative; it’s mostly the protagonist having money problems, dealing with his family, navigating the neighbourhood and despairing, slightly, about his condition. Sure, there are "social problems” but they’re dealt with so quietly and lyrically that it makes the more brazen (and more stereotypical) films about black poverty and crime seem like the lurid insults they are. Burnett is gunning for something else: the day-to-day acceptance of unsatisfactory circumstances, which extends to the topical matters but reaches far beyond them. You might not notice at first but the film is rich in detail and rewards multiple viewings a thousand fold. Also included is his belated follow-up My Brother’s Wedding, in which a feckless young black man is torn between his uptight, successful brother and his surly ex-con best friend. He evades making a decision about his life and ridicules his brother’s fiancée until a tragedy tears him between ceremonies for both poles of his consciousness. Anyone looking to critique the hyper-masculine gangsta image would do well to start here, because without pointing fingers or raining judgements it deftly sketches a man trapped between conformity and irresponsibility. These two films are complemented by a selection of four excellent shorts, a friendly but dull commentary with Burnett and Richard Pẽna, a lively reunion video featuring cast members of Killer of Sheep, and great liner notes by Armond White, who pretty much nails the main film’s achievement. Burnett is routinely hailed as America’s greatest black director but he’s a great American director, period, and his work should be seen by everyone who loves movies. (Mongrel Media)