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Killer of Sheep

Released: 1977

Genre: Drama

Runtime: 1 hr 23 min

MPAA Rating: NR

Director: Charles Burnett

Starring: Henry Gayle Sanders, Kaycee Moore, Charles Bracy, Angela Burnett, Eugene Cherry, Jack Drummond

Charles Burnett’s celebrated debut film is an incisive portrait of black life in Watts.

An extraordinary portrait of an impoverished black family in L.A.

Review by: JerrySaravia

Added: 8 years ago

"Killer of Sheep" is not a film that is designed to entertain, only to inform in the most poetic way possible - through pure images. In that spirit, despite its creaky pacing and other faults, it is an extraordinary portrait of an impoverished black family in L.A, specifically the Watts area.

Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders) is the main character, a slaughterhouse worker who comes home every day, beaten down by life. He feels little in the way of emotion, he doesn't communicate too well with his two kids (one of whom occasionally wears a hounddog mask) and he can't make love to his wife (Kaycee Moore), despite hearing Dinah Washington belting out "This Bitter Earth" on their LP player. There is little joy in this world with friends and other associates barging in and out of his house, kids jumping across the roofs of these small apartments, kids throwing rocks at each other, dragging a car engine with his bare hands, killing sheep at work (at one point, he tells his wife he needs a new job), and in general, a pervading feeling of listlessness. Stan is calm when he drinks tea but more often than not, he is fixing the sink or cutting linoleum. Stan is even treated seductively by a white female grocery/liquor store who will cash his checks but presumably nobody else's. There is the tendency to resort to violence and one feels Stan may or may not consider it. The pressure of his job and family might do him in, or it might not.

"Killer of Sheep" is built out of individual moments of time. There is no plot and as writer-director Charles Burnett describes it, it is meant to be an evocation, an illustration of his reality - akin to a documentary. Some of these episodes of life are strung together without a lot of coherence, and other times there are abrupt cuts or transitions, particularly involving lines of dialogue. The sound quality isn't the best, though that is a minor criticism since the black and white photography is evocative enough. Though Burnett chose to be anti-Hollywood in those days since he rejected polished Hollywood product, it doesn't mean that the editing should lack polish or that the rhythm is sometimes stilted. Still, such technical limitations do not diminish the power and beauty at work here. "Killer of Sheep's" antecedents, intended or not, are firmly rooted in the neorealism and naturalism of Vittorio De Sica or Satyajit Ray.

"Killer of Sheep" has had a strange history. For Burnett, the film was his UCLA thesis that gained a following but wasn't released theatrically due to music rights. Now, after thirty years, it has been restored by UCLA and shown in some theatres. For a look at poverty and the harshness of life (a timelier topic, now more than ever) without resorting to a political debate or specific black communities, "Killer of Sheep" is a helpful reminder that things haven't changed.