Review: Charles Burnett’s “Killer of Sheep”

Charles Burnett’s 1977 masterpiece Killer of Sheep, which finally received a proper theatrical release 30 years after its premiere, makes its own powerful argument as an indispensable work, one of the finest made in America in any medium. Its black and white images, recalling the photographs of Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Robert Frank, are like nothing else you’ll ever see. Dispensing with plot almost entirely, the film is so full to bursting with odd, funny, and poignant moments that multiple viewings are necessary even to begin to appreciate its abundant riches.

Made by Burnett as his master’s thesis film as a student at UCLA, the film was shot in Watts, Los Angeles (where Burnett himself grew up), and it so accurately captures the feel of its environment, it’s almost as if you can taste the dirt that the children constantly play in. The film’s central character, Stan (Henry Gale Sanders), works in a slaughterhouse, and lives in a constant state of anxiety, so much so that he cannot sleep, and walks around with a dazed, nearly catatonic expression, feeling disconnected from the world around him. The first time we see him, he is puttering around the house, fixing odds and ends, lamenting to his friend about how he cannot sleep or get any peace of mind. His marriage is strained, because his wife (Kaycee Moore) feels he neglects her and finds her unattractive. He goes with his friend to buy a car engine, and fends off an offer from some local hustlers to make money from a robbery and murder. But that’s about it in the way of plot. The film is truly an experience, rather than something to simply watch. It captures better than nearly any other film I can think of the natural rhythms of daily life, the endless quotidian grind of going to the same unfulfilling job, trying to keep your head above water, and not sink to the depths of despair.

The film, as befits its title, is interspersed with recurring images of lambs being led to slaughter, and it’s not hard to read a metaphor for life in America in this. But Burnett is after much more than such facile comparisons. He creates a complex and endlessly fascinating world, in which all its characters are vividly memorable, even those with the briefest screen time, lending the film an effortless, unforced authenticity that comes from an artist observing actual people in the world, rather than copying other films.

Even though the vernacular of the characters may now seem dated, there are still some memorable bits of dialogue and incident that will linger long in the memory. Stan in one scene chases down a man who owes him money, who protests, “I ain’t got nothin’ but my good looks!” Stan at one point says, “I ain’t poor! I give away things to the Salvation Army! You can’t give away nothin’ to the Salvation Army if you’re poor!” The most priceless moment to my mind is a brilliant sight gag in which a group of people sit in the front seat of a car, and a man reaches through the windshield to grab a beer, revealing that there is no glass there. It makes me laugh every time. Stan’s young daughter (Angela Burnett) is the source of some of the film’s loveliest moments: early in the film, she has a literal hangdog expression, wearing a hound dog mask; she sings loudly along with Earth, Wind, and Fire’s “Reasons”; she delicately puts on a dress. There are so many others I could cite, and this is part of the pleasure of watching the film.

Another rich source of pleasure is the film’s great soundtrack, which alternately serves as resonant accompaniment and ironic counterpoint to Burnett’s images. A couple of examples are: the scene in which Stan dances with his wife to Dinah Washington’s “This Bitter Earth”; the slaughterhouse killings set to Little Walter’s “Mean Old World.” These and other songs, such as Louis Armstrong’s “West End Blues” and Paul Robeson’s “The House I Live In,” convey the intertwined pain and joy felt but not articulated by the film’s characters. This soundtrack, such an essential element of the film, was the reason the film remained nearly unseen for thirty years, because of the laborious and expensive process of clearing the music rights for these songs.

Richly deserving of its honored place as one of the first selections in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry, Killer of Sheep, is available on DVD in a beautiful 35mm restoration from Milestone Films. More than just one of the most vivid depictions of black ghetto life ever committed to film, it is a lovely and lyrical work of art which was quite influential. Best of all, it ended the woeful critical and popular neglect of Charles Burnett, finally recognized as one of America’s very finest filmmakers.

Killer of Sheep is part of Milestone Films’ “The Charles Burnett Collection,” which also includes both versions of his 1983 feature My Brother’s Wedding, and four short films, including “Quiet as Kept,” about Hurricane Katrina.