Killer of Sheep is tied with Bringing Up Baby as my favorite film. I don’t see that ever changing with these two movies. I became enamored with Killer of Sheep when I was researching for my thesis two summers ago and I have only become more intrigued by this film.
To me, Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, which is a series of vignettes set in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts, is the greatest American film ever made. 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. (I wrote a longer essay on Killer of Sheep, which you can read here.)
With this, I am done with the 30 Day Film Challenge and thank goodness. I was terribly bored with it these last few days. How do you think I did?
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.