“I wanted to do something that reflected the way people in the community would see themselves. Coming from another place, you can see a much larger picture. But when you’re in a well, you can only see the narrow light above. If you’ve been living like that for a long time, it can have an unproductive effect on you in many ways. So it wasn’t my personal conflicts. It was the conflict of the community.” – Director Charles Burnett in an interview with Filmmaker Magazine about his film Killer of Sheep.
After more than 42 years, Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1977) is now recognized as a seminal film in the indie film movement of the ‘70s even though it didn’t receive a wide release until 2007 via Milestone Films. In fact, Burnett never really intended for the film to have a theatrical release; he made it as his thesis film at UCLA. But retrospective screenings of the film and the resulting critical acclaim culminated in Killer of Sheep winning the Forum of New Cinema prize at the 1981 Berlin International Film Festival. Other accolades followed such as being selected by the National Film Registry in 1990 for film preservation and winning a special award from the New York Film Critics Circle in 2007. Not bad for a movie shot on 16mm and made for a rock bottom budget of $10,000 from film grants.
A stark yet often lyrical portrait of life on the edge in an economically depressed neighborhood in south L.A., Killer of Sheep avoids a traditional narrative and draws you in through a series of vignettes in the lives of a working class family presided over by Stan (Henry G. Sanders), who works in a slaughterhouse for sheep, hence the film’s title.
On the surface, Watts looks like a wasteland but Burnett finds poetry in odd places and creates moments of quiet beauty from the squalor – kids leaping across rooftops, Stan’s daughter singing to her doll while her mother primps in the bathroom mirror, a group of teenagers trying to physically move an abandoned railroad car, Stan and his wife slow dancing to Dinah Washington’s “This Bitter Earth.” Even the dehumanizing day to day glimpses of Stan’s work in the slaughterhouse is tempered by Burnett’s ironic use of music and occasionally disorienting camera angles.
Many of the scenes in the movie are filmed at floor level as if indicative of the beaten-down, defeated nature of some of the Watts residents. In one scene Stan tries to repair the kitchen floor while being distracted by tensions between visiting neighbors and a son who enjoys bullying his sister. In another scene, we observe a crap game from the point of view of a woman’s leg. And in one of the sadder moments, we watch floor level negotiations for a used car engine end in a thoughtless accident that sums up the futility of Stan’s life.
Killer of Sheep may be uncompromising in its portrait of how grinding poverty crushes the soul and spirit yet there’s a vitality and creative energy on display here that is profoundly moving. Burnett approaches his terrain like an ethnographer and we get an insider view of a culture most moviegoers have never seen before – slices of real life, moments of truth. And the kids in the film will break your heart such as Stan’s daughter, a mute and forlorn figure, wandering around in a dog mask or the impish kid dodging dirt clogs from behind a piece of plywood.
There’s never an attempt to sentimentalize or condescend to these ragtag kids, running around in packs unsupervised. When you see the film, you’ll understand why it has been compared to the Italian neorealism classics of Vittorio de Sica – The Bicycle Thieves – and Roberto Rossellini – Open City. Like those films, Burnett also used mostly non-professional actors and friends from his Watts neighborhood and it only adds to the film’s authenticity.
One reason the film didn’t receive an official theatrical release until 2007 was due to music rights clearances. Burnett and the distributor, Milestone Films, had to replace a few of the songs on the soundtrack because they couldn’t reach an agreement with the music publishers but the music that remains is essential to the film’s mood and emotional power. Among the songs are “I Believe” by Elmore James, “Reasons” by Earth, Wind and Fire, “Going Home” by Paul Robeson, “Mean Old World” by Little Walter and “West End Blues” by Louis Armstrong.
The other hurdle facing the film was how to attract audiences to see a movie entitled Killer of Sheep. Most moviegoers want escapism from the cinema. They don’t expect art, poetry, and raw emotion from a movie but that’s what you’ll take away from this one-of-a-kind masterpiece. Luckily, a large number of filmmakers and critics have seen Killer of Sheep and championed it as one of the most striking directorial debuts in movie history. Ed Gonzalez of Slant magazine wrote, “The film at once recalls the episodic nature of John Cassavetes’s early works, primarily Shadows and his masterpiece Faces, the plaintive allegory of Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar and the humanist works of Jean Renoir. Despite these influences, the film’s sad yet proud vision of black life in the ghetto is distinctly Burnett’s own, and one that would influence David Gordon Green’s beautiful George Washington.”
Killer of Sheep is still available on DVD from Milestone Films. You can also stream it on Vimeo.