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Charles Burnett’s ‘Killer of Sheep’
Charles Burnett’s ‘Killer of Sheep’, completed in 1973, sort-of released in 1977, has since then, been an unavailable film-dork rarity. The movie’s legend grew as it won a few awards and was declared a “national treasure” by the Library of Congress, yet there were still major obstacles preventing a commercial release. A black-made film about working-class blacks and absent of guns, gangs, and violence and equally absent of overt politicizing is not very marketable. Furthermore, because Burnett made the movie for film school and not for public consumption, he developed an idiosyncratic soundtrack without the consideration of legal music rights issues.

A few years ago, Milestone Films stepped-in and began the campaign to for ‘Killer of Sheep’s official release. They obtained most of the music rights and restored the movie. A few weeks ago, I was able to see ‘Killer of Sheep’ at the Maryland Film Festival, with the heads of Milestone presenting along with the lead actor Henry Saunders.

‘Killer of Sheep’ takes the rawness of the era’s blaxploitation films but leaves behind their violent stereotypes. The movie is without plot, instead providing loosely connected vignettes and scenes in early 70s Compton/Watts. It is framed around Stan, who works at a slaughterhouse, and his wife and children. Nothing big happens, no one dies, no big secrets revealed. As a lazy writer, I want to drop a grotesque cliché about how the film is about “regular people” and move on, but that’s not accurate. Burnett’s movie is about people one might actually meet but the implication of “regular people” is a romanticization or idealization of the regular, which it is not.

Nothing is idealized in Burnett’s movie. Children do not play peacefully or even, wildly organized as they do in other movies, they run around and kick up dust and throw rocks and yell things that you can barely understand. One of my favorite moments is one where Burnett, during a scene of children playing, holds on a little boy standing on a roof, hit by a rock, just standing there crying. Burnett holds on the boy, who grips his arm as he tears up but we do not hear his crying or the continued playing of the indifferent children we only hear the soundtrack playing (I think) Faye Adams’ ‘Shake a Hand’. Another scene shows Stan’s daughter singing along to Earth, Wind, and Fire’s ‘Reasons’, her voice mixed as high as the song’s.

I fear that even these scenes denote sentimentality that isn’t present in the film. Maybe it’s the black and white film, and Burnett’s tentative hand-held camera, and the naturalistic acting, and the perfect mix of irony, sympathy, and empathy but ‘Killer of Sheep’ never feels cheap or sentimental. A scene early in the movie presents two characters approaching Stan in front of his house, asking if he would like to help them kill somebody for money. He angrily dismisses them and they respond first to him and then to Stan’s wife with the “I’m just getting’ mine” speech that stands in contrast to everything Stan works for and believes. The interaction is played-out in a realistic manner and so, the thugs’ speech is never too articulate or overtly evil and Stan is both proudly proclaiming his not being a criminal and growing angry/insecure because he sees why it would be easier to be a pimp or hired gun. The movie is a series of reversals and then re-reversals like this, confounding and frustrating viewers.

When I saw the movie, the inevitably uncomfortable after-movie discussion briefly devolved into a white woman suggesting that the movie enforced certain stereotypes and generally dismal “ghetto” living. She cited a scene where Stan and a friend purchase a car engine for Stan’s truck from a Pimp. He barters with the Pimp, eventually buying it for 15 dollars. Stan and friend carry the engine to the truck and as they place the engine on the bed of the truck, it smashes Stan’s friend’s finger. Stan is left humorously trying to balance it on the edge of the bed as his friend shakes his hand, bouncing up and down in pain. The friend, having just dropped an engine on his finger, is sort of done with carrying and tries to tell Stan it will be okay on the end of the bed which it obviously will not. Against his better judgment Stan does not argue, and they jump into the truck. A wide-shot reveals the engine teetering off the edge of the truck-bed and just as the truck begins moving, the engine falls and smashes in the street.

This woman cited this as portraying the stereotypical lack of intelligence of black people, which is what she wanted the scene to be about. A “knowing” viewer will find what looks like stereotypes all through the film. What the scene is really about is Stan’s kindness, his sympathy for his hurt-fingered friend extending so far that he doesn’t want to force the friend to move the engine even though he risks breaking the engine. Burnett plays with the audience as the scene is set-up like those unfortunate Little Rascals ‘Our Gang’ episodes (something like Stymie continually throwing a rock in a tree and it hitting him in the head), echoing these racist comedies but ultimately, having nothing to do with them. This outraged woman can only perceived black movies in terms of their supporting or negating a stereotype; she refuses to see the humanity and psychology of black characters.

The title ‘Killer of Sheep’ explicitly refers to Stan’s occupation in a slaughterhouse but I believe it also points towards Stan’s opposition to a sheep-like mentality. The first scene of the movie is Stan yelling at his older son for misbehaving. The son is something of a specter of trouble in the movie, fooling around, harassing his sister, not coming when his mother calls him; there’s a sense that this child, when he grows older, might become one of the unsavory pimps we see in the movie. Often those pimp characters are given startling close-ups and we see their eyes, eyes disinterested in care or hard work; dead eyes. After the movie Henry Saunders, who played Stan, discussed the visual parallels between the sheep’s eyes in the slaughterhouse scenes and the eyes of certain characters throughout the film. The pimps and criminals of the movie are the sheep, blind followers of a code, believing they are individuals because they don’t work a conventional job.

Of course, Burnett is also a killer of sheep, destroying the audience’s sheep-like gravitation towards simple answers and interpretations in regards to black movie-making. As I was watching, I thought about what I’ve read about the movie, the way it is said to be one of the most well-wrought portrayals of black people on film but about halfway through, it occurred to me that I don’t think there’s a movie about “average” white people this well-rendered either.

For theaters in your area showing ‘Killer of Sheep’:

Written by Brandon

May 29th, 2007 at 5:14 am