Killer of Sheep (1978)
Written & Directed by Charles Burnett
To be Black in America is to live in a constant state of contemplating whiteness. Of course, being a white person, I can’t say with any absolute sense what that feels like, but I can imagine it can be overwhelming at certain times. Eventually, you would become somewhat numb but never enough to escape the torment of it, to be constantly reminded of an artificial inferiority imposed on you by a culture of people who revel in their mediocrity. As a result, in the United States, there have been waves of Black cinema, each with its own distinct tones & styles, attempting to capture & communicate a feeling of what it felt like to be Black at that time.
Today, we have a much more mainstream series of films from directors about Blackness coming from directors like Jordan Peele, Barry Jenkins, and Nia DaCosta, just to name a few. Previously, the 1990s saw a rise in Black films about experiences of racism and violence in their communities, developing in tandem with the hip-hop/rap movement. Before that, an often ignored Black New Wave emerged in the 1970s. Most people are familiar with Blaxploitation, but many movies were inspired by the Italian New Wave. That film movement focused on the day-to-day lives of ordinary people, often showcasing situations where people had to compromise their values to aid their family’s survival. For example, Vittorio DiSica’s Bicycle Thieves is an inspiration for Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, a series of vignettes that explore the lives of Black people living in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles.
Killer of Sheep feels almost documentary, a non-narrative that lets the camera explore the space with actors essentially playing versions of themselves. Stan (Henry G. Sanders) is the patriarch, working long hours at a slaughterhouse, making him the titular Killer of Sheep. There are graphic images of Stan bleeding out the sheep, skinning, and gutting them, but he gives no reaction. But the effects of this violent drudgery seep into his home life with his two children, Stan Jr. and Angela, and his unnamed wife. Stan is coerced by friends into taking part in a crime. An older white woman propositions Stan for sex at her store. There’s a sequence where Stan and a friend buy a car engine failing to get it back to the house. This is the story of a working-class Black person trying to keep himself and his family alive in a world full of obstacles.
There is the authenticity of life found in Killer of Sheep that few movies, even contemporary indie flicks, fail to capture. The previously mentioned engine sequence is a perfect example of that. Stan and his friend Bracy struggle to carry the engine by hand to the open tailgate of a pick-up truck. Bracy is tired and leaves the engine just over the lip of the tailgate, telling Stan it’s so heavy it won’t budge as they drive. Stan is reticent but goes along; he, too, is exhausted from working and now exerting what little energy he has left to do this. They get in the truck, and almost as soon as the gas is pressed, the engine block tumbles off and onto the street. A quick survey leads Bracy to say it’s cracked and now near useless.
This is such a small moment in cinema, but we’ve been there in our lives. We’ve been ground to the bone and have to handle some annoying errands after work. And then, to have all that extra effort be for nothing, it’s a micro-tragedy felt on a massive psychological scale. But it’s also an apt metaphor for life as part of the working class and even more relevant to working-class Black people. When you are poor, even the slightest setback can be devastating. Of course, the wealthy can recover from pretty much anything like that, but Stan will struggle even more.
Burnett isn’t trying to make some sweeping statement or play into grandiose themes. Instead, he searches for the poetic beauty of living and surviving against the odds. He touches on toxic masculinity, showing a father chastising his son for not violently beating up another kid fighting his brother. When I was a teacher, I chose to work primarily in Title I schools which, where I live, means a student body of majority Black children. I didn’t do this because I wanted the praise of being a white savior; my mindset was simply these are the places that need more, not the schools that already have everything because of their zip codes. It was common to hear children, and sometimes parents, talk casually about violence as the best means to solve conflicts. I couldn’t judge them because I wasn’t living their lives under the conditions they were often stuck in. It’s easy for me to talk about the pointlessness of turning on each other out of frustration when the real evil is tucked safely inside a gated community on the other side of the city. Black people understand this, but they also have to engage in a complex social hierarchy imposed on them by the white establishment in the form of the police. Trickle-down economics was a pipe dream, but trickle-down violence is all too real.
Burnett knows this, too, and doesn’t judge his characters as he portrays their lives. Unlike the castigating glare of Tyler Perry, a man with some definite self-hate, as we’ve talked about earlier, Burnett sees beauty in his characters’ flaws and struggles. Stan comes home after work and immediately starts laying linoleum in the kitchen, fixing a leaky sink, and trying to find some time to spend with children and alone time with his wife. Burnett’s camera is in no rush, giving us lingering moments, focused on a face here or there, not making any sort of statement but wanting us to see it, faces that are often invisible in the more prominent corners of media.
Music is omnipresent, a part of reality in Black life. Music is joy; music is the brightening of life. He also understands that Black people don’t simply listen to Black music, including pieces by Rachmaninov and Gershwin. These musical tracks serve to heighten the beauty, taking what is traditionally used to accentuate whiteness and using it to highlight the poetic beauty of Black life. Paul Robeson’s signature bass-baritone reminds us of one of the most remarkable Black singers to ever live. Dinah Washington’s “This Bitter Earth” plays while Stan and his wife, finding a quiet moment, dance in their living room, backlit by a singular window.
Burnett doesn’t ignore the inner lives of the children, who seem to exist in a separate world as the adults work day and night. The games the boys engage in are all recreations of war, two sides pitted against each other, trying to claim more territory. Plywood boards are used as shields, the phalanx marching forward and gaining inch by inch. Rocks are thrown as the other side peeks up over their dirt hill. A child is struck by a rock and cries. The game stops. The children gather in a circle. The wounded will be okay. But the game is over, and we follow some children as they drift to nearby train tracks trying to decide what game is next. Burnett rehearsed none of the scenes with the children, so these are real interactions in front of us.
Killer of Sheep isn’t a dour, moody film; it is rife with humor too. Burnett has an excellent ear for how people around him speak and recreates it here. These are not people moping around, feeling burdened. The weight is on their shoulders, no doubt, but they love so much of life. They love the people in their family & community. They find satisfaction in work but understand there is a line, and part of their lives are taken from by being overworked. You can definitely see the influence of this picture on Barry Jenkins, who carries many of these themes & images into Moonlight.
This will be the first of four Charles Burnett pictures I’ll be reviewing, with each one different, some dramatically so, charting the progression of this director from his beginnings in the 1970s to an African war epic in the mid-2000s. I want to introduce you to his work and get you intrigued enough to go out and watch some of his films on your own.