Killer of Sheep
Killer of Sheep, as well as its director Charles Burnett, is a kind of strange anomaly; A film and a director who have been so critically celebrated and influential yet still unseen and unknown to a majority in film circles. It’s even odder when you consider that Burnett is American. But that shouldn’t take away the fact that Killer of Sheep is a fantastic American film and one of the all time great directorial debuts, ranking among Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, John Cassavetes’ Shadows, Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless and Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali. Channeling the gritty documentary style of Italian neorealist cinema, Burnett is able to create a sad but poetic portrait of the – life in Watts (Los Angeles) and its residents, who are mostly of African decent. The film’s protagonist Stan (played effectively by Henry Gayle Sanders) , suffers from insomnia, works at a slaughterhouse (interestingly killing sheep), lives in poverty, and is surrounded by the harsh reality of a life that seems to be going nowhere. Stan could have been snatched right out off a Jean Renior film; he just fits the mold of the tragic hero so perfectly. We see this in a scene where Stan and a friend try to purchase a motor only to end up breaking it. Burnett also explores the lives around him like his wife, who serves as a voice of reason for Stan and their children (a scene that best personifies this is one where she breaks out and wonderfully delivers a passionate monologue about “what it really means to be a man” to two gangsters trying to persuade Stan on an upcoming crime). She is also shown as a tragic character who struggles to keep her husband’s interest, even though she takes her time putting her face on. You can sense sexual frustration between the two in many scenes where the two try their hardest to be intimate.
Burnett constructs Killer of Sheep like an episodic dream, cutting the film up in a series of vignettes documenting street life in a very poetic fashion rather than a conventional narrative. This makes the film flow like a stream of consciousness, shifting from scenes of Stan’s life, African American youth, and footage of the broken down neighborhood. But Killer of Sheep still documents the harsh reality of the poor African American life better than any film made before or after it, while still capturing a strange beauty in it. Scenes like watching kids jump from house roofs, playing on railroad tracks, or even have rock fights (scenes which have an eerie similarity to modern day footage of kids in Iraq or any other third world country) create both scary and wonderful images, much like the films of Satyajit Ray. Another striking scene is one where Stan’s daughter puts on an ugly Halloween dog mask which is both creepy yet oddly appealing (the scene which I wouldn’t be surprised influenced David Gordon Green to use the alligator mask in his own debut, George Washington). But this style of filmmaking does strip Killers of Sheep of an actual story to move in an actual narrative direction. But, as has been proven by filmmakers like Godard, Lynch, Resnais, or Cassavetes, a narrative isn’t necessarily a requirement. In reality, the endless feeling the film has fits it’s character’s sad meaningless lives, which is so well captured in the film’s last sequence where Burnett fades from a scene of a pregnant African American woman’s belly to a heard of sheep ready to be killed.
In many ways the film Burnett’s film sometimes falls into the trap of being referred to as an “African American” film, a category the director probably has always wanted to avoid. Making Killer of Sheep as an answer to the popular blaxploitation movement of the 70s, African American cinema has since evolved only a little since, falling into categories like racial statements (something like Spike Lee’s late 80s masterpiece Do the Right Thing, or really any of the director’s other, and much inferior, films), hood life (basically John Singleton’s overrated filmograghy, which does include his only good film Boyz n the Hood, as well as Allen and Albert Hughes’ sadly underrated Menace II Society), annoying Oscar bait films (Dreamgirls or Ray or this year’s own Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire) and, the bottom of the barrel, Tyler Perry films. This is also not to say that Burnett doesn’t also make his own racial statements in Killer of Sheep. One scene in particular involving an awkward, to say the least, interaction between Stan and white business woman has as so much to say about black-white relations and never do we feel like Burnett is hitting us over the head with that information.
But even with today, Killer of Sheep is highly regarded as one of the greatest films ever made and may be the most important American independent film since Cassavettes’ Shadows, as well as the decades most striking debuts, along with Terrence Malik’s Badlands and David Lynch’s Eraserhead (which interestingly enough came out the same year).