Killer of Sheep (Burnett, 1977)


Charles Burnett, a director many film critics feel to be the most important African American director working today, made his feature debut Killer of Sheep as a graduate student at UCLA in 1977. A layered portrait of an African American family in transition and the crumbling mise-en-scene of 1970’s Watts, Killer of Sheep dares to approach everyday existence in a number of different moods, glimpses of “reality”, and outlooks on urban life, allowing relationships to blossom under times of harshness and melancholy. Burnett was only thirty three years when he made Killer of Sheep, yet the film (shot on 16mm) reverberates a sense of human understanding usually reserved for masters. After winning a major award at the Berlin Film Festival a few years after it’s completion, the film sporadically screened at other film festivals, but never attained distribution due to it’s wide array of music copyright conflicts. After three decades, Killer of Sheep has finally been re-released by Milestone films and recently began playing at local art house cinemas across the country, bringing much joy to film aficionados and critics alike, myself included.Burnett’s patriarch Stan (Henry G. Sanders) goes about his business working at a meat factory, constantly finding himself tempted by various vices, illegal activities, and threatening characters around his inner city neighborhood. Thugs visit Stan outside his house asking to help kill someone, gamblers entice him to throw down the dice, and women often lay on the thick sex appeal in hopes of wrapping their arms around his chiseled physique. All this engulfs Stan’s life, but he doesn’t project this back onto his family in an overzealous or self-pitying way. No, Burnett’s hero keeps on chugging, doing right by his family, staying focused on them by not allowing his own displeasure to taint their growth. Stan provides for his wife (Kaycee Moore), young adult son, and darling little girl, but also recognizing a lack which permeates his deepest fears abut poverty, violence, and displacement. Stan and his wife might be one of the most hypnotic on-screen couples of all time, saying very little with words and so much with body language and facial expressions. This relationship crescendo’s with a haunting slow dance sequence, Stan and his wife shown in a long take medium shot capturing the lingering feelings of resignation overwhelming them both. Burnett’s direction superbly captures two people of mutual respect working through a time of emotional, financial, and spiritual change, one in any other director’s hand might come off trite and hyper-emotional. Killer of Sheep takes the group dynamic (hence the title) and parallels decisions of selfishness with those of selflessness, understanding full well they can become merged and complicated, difficult to discern from each other. Stan’s test remains his devotion to life itself, a link between him and his family which cannot be broken by the stereotypical vices of man. In Burnett’s masterful film, nightmares and dreamscapes fill the broken buildings where the neighborhood boys wage play battles, the cosy living room of Stan’s family home, and most of all the slaughter floor of Stan’s work, where’s the sheep’s blood stains not only his hands, but his outlook on life. Burnett’s images might be black and white, but America the beautiful has never been painted in more telling shades of gray.

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