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Review: ‘Killer of Sheep’

Restoration of Charles Burnett’s Film

Henry G. Sanders in Cahrles Burnett's

Credit: Milesone Films

Above: Henry G. Sanders in Cahrles Burnett's "Killer of Sheep."

For "Killer of Sheep's" thirtieth anniversary, Milestone Film (with support from Steven Soderbergh and Turner Classic Movies, and restoration work by the UCLA Film and Television Archive) has stepped in to pay for the music clearance, strike a beautiful new 35mm print, and give the film its first true theatrical release. And for this we should give thanks.

The story, if you can call something as free flowing and episodic as this a story, centers on Stan (Henry G. Sanders). Stan lives in Watts with his wife and kids. He works in a slaughterhouse, and seems to be one of the few people in the film who actually has a steady job. But its a job that takes a toll on him. He comes home exhausted yet he cant sleep. He has a wife (Kaycee Moore) who loves him yet he remains distant and aloof. He has a sadness about him yet he also finds surprising joys and small pleasures in life. He finds himself caught in a conundrum, and feels the frustration of someone maintaining a full time job yet unable to get ahead or out of the South Central ghetto. In a scene that's humorous, touching and defiantly proud, Stan resists the label of "poor" because he gives things away to the Salvation Army.

The film offers us a slice of Stans life. There are no shootouts, no life changing occurrences, no big climax. Instead Burnett simply and gracefully allows us to spend a few days with Stan, getting a feel for the ebb and flow of his life. We experience the oppressive drudgery of working in a slaughterhouse; the sweet pleasure of holding his daughter; and the hunger for something more. We see small dreams snuffed out and larger ones continually out of reach. Along the way we also get a feel for what it was like living in Watts in the mid 70s. Burnett serves up wonderful scenes of kids playing in empty lots and in rundown buildings. There are battles with cardboard shields, leaping from one rooftop to another, and riding bikes. He also shows Stan's daughter listening to Earth, Wind & Fire while playing with a white doll, a quiet but potent comment on being a minority in White America in the 1970s. Burnett captures the childrens ability to turn anything into a game as well as the sometimes cruel, sometimes kind way kids can treat each other.

His film is like a time capsule that perfectly captures the details of ordinary life. Yet don't think that the film feels dated. Thirty years may have passed but much of what Burnett has to say about the African American experience in America still holds true. What he saw and recorded with such clear-eyed honesty back in the 70s remains fresh, vibrant and provocative today.

In the press materials Burnett explains, I come from a working-class environment and I wanted to express what the realities were. People were trying to get jobs, and once they found jobs they were fully concerned with keeping them. And they were confronted with other problems, with serious problems at home for example, which made things much more difficult. But he also makes sure to include the beauty be it Stan and his wife dancing to "The Bitter Earth," or holding a warm cup of tea up to his cheek and noting how it reminds him of the warmth of a woman's face.

The film does boast a remarkable naturalism, as if Burnett just walked into Watts and started filming whatever was going on as he passed through. The images he captures have a raw honesty and unexpected poetry. His film also has an amazing innocence not only in terms of the purity of the images but also in terms of Burnett as a filmmaker. There's a quality in the film that Burnett will probably never be able to duplicate, its the innocence of being a first time filmmaker and breaking all the rules because he doesn't yet know what those rules are. This innocence gives the film a freshness that you can still feel today. It's also the innocence of a filmmaker with a vision and not having anyone from a studio step in and say you can't do that.

But the film also makes us ponder is how difficult it is for African American filmmakers to make serious films about their communities. Consider all the praise heaped on "Killer of Sheep" --both now and thirty years ago--yet Burnett has only made a handful of films in the decades that have passed. And only one of those films, "To Sleep with Anger," secured what could be called a wide release. The fact that Burnett couldn't parlay the critical success of "Killer of Sheep" into more opportunities to make more films that would be more widely seen seems a shame.

"Killer of Sheep" is a bleak and beautiful film. There's so much to be said about the incredible details of this film yet I don't want to spoil the discovery of those moments for viewers so I'll just stop here. Contemporary audiences that are used to the slick production values of current films may be initially put off by the occasional technical crudeness of Burnett's film and the fact that its in black and white. But I urge people to make an effort to see the film and to see past the low budget awkwardness to find the exquisite lyricism of Burnett's film. It's truly rare to find something this original, honest and insightful.

Watch the trailer for the " Killer of Sheep."

Companion viewing: "To Sleep with Anger," "George Washington," "The Bicycle Thief"

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