Shades of a changing community in Killer of Sheep

A scene from Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep

It is rare when a movie that is recommended to you so frequently actually has a deeply profound impact on how you see every film the came before and after it.

I first heard about Killer of Sheep as I imagine many college kids do — in a film history course as one of  the suggested outside of class viewings  you should see “as soon as you can.” My professor was especially enthusiastic about Killer of Sheep. It was 2007 and the film has just been released on DVD for the first time since 1977. Director Charles Burnett was going to be present at a special screening of the film at the Amherst Cinema. We were strongly encouraged to attend.

I didn’t go. At the time, a film like Killer of Sheep could barely make a dent on my radar because I was blindly infatuated by my love for classic cinema. (Not that this is a bad thing, but I have come to realize how limiting watching only classic Hollywood cinema can be.) Two years later, I found myself finally watching the restored version of this film and I was absolutely mesmerized. If there is any film that cements the notions that the cinema is the powerful artistic medium, that films should offer a nuanced social commentary, and the necessity for film restoration, it is Killer of Sheep.

In the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts, Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders) works at the  local slaughterhouse. His job is gruesome, strenuous and dangerous. It affects his home life with his wife and two children; he becomes increasingly detached from his surroundings. In a series of vignettes, we watch Stan go through various experiences – at home, with his friends, in the community – that don’t lead to any real plot or character development. This way the film emphasizes the daily monotony of life and even the unintentional humor that comes from it.

Stan's daughter Angela playing in the neighborhood

Everything that happens in Killer of Sheep is presented under the guise of simplicity and small moments. This just how these characters exist, whether they are running through abandoned lots or spending time with their family. There are moral conflicts, a sense of tradition, and a blend of the comedic and the  tragic.

Killer of Sheep is pitted against negative stereotypes of black America in cinema. Think of the blaxploitation films during this same time period. Blaxploitation films and Killer of Sheep approach the same topic but in such different fashions. Much of Killer of Sheep evokes Italian Neorealism. There is powerful and often unsettling shot composition, long takes, and a use of unknown actors performers. As those filmmakers did in the 1940s, Burnett focuses on realism, shows the community for what it was, and provides a document of a neighborhood that is transitioning.

This scene where Stan dances with his wife to Dinah Washington’s version of “This Bitter Earth” is one of my favorite scenes from any movie. It is simple and unabashedly moving.

Killer of Sheep has played a vital role in my understanding and appreciation of American independent cinema. This is a film that was made for less than $10,000 and never found its way to mainstream audiences. It took decades before the film ever made it to DVD. I see the style and slow but steady recognition of Killer of Sheep as parallel to today’s independent films like Goodbye Solo and In Between Days. People would say to me throughout the course of my research, “Why these films? No one watches them.” I would always respond with Killer of Sheep – it is one of those films you should see no matter what your initial misgivings may be.

Whether or not filmmakers today are referencing Killer of Sheep in their work is one thing (though George Washington (2000) and Ballast (2008) has shades of Killer of Sheep throughout it). It is so important to recognize the vitality of this film in the history of American cinema. I truly believe that it doesn’t get more “American” than this film. The vignettes, the music, the performances, everything works together to form an expose on American life that hasn’t been seen in American cinema before or since. What a film like Killer of Sheep articulates is a director’s concerns with the social, political, and economic conditions that exist in American culture.

I’ll leave you with a snippet of one of many things I love about Killer of Sheep: the music. The soundtrack consists of 22 songs ranging from Paul Robeson to Dinah Washington to Earth Wind and Fire. Each song adds so much to the scene it accompanies, giving a shot life when you least expect it. “Shake a Hand,” performed by Faye Adams, is paired with brief shots of the children in the community jumping between rooftops and throwing rocks at each other. What the soundtrack does is give the film, which is placed firmly within this community, with a sense of unparalleled freedom.

This reflection is a part of my ongoing Thesis Redux project. More here on the films I will be watching and writing about.

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