In 1977, after the Civil Rights movement had ground to a desperate halt and Sidney Poitier’s squeaky clean portrayals of integration had given way to the rapid boom and bust of Black Exploitation, a graduation film from UCLA film school marked the emergence of one of America’s most critically celebrated, yet seldom screened, filmmakers. After over thirty years, Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep is being shown in the UK as part of a major retrospective of his work, with a DVD release of the film planned for later in the year. So just what is it that has finally made people sit up and recognise the film for the astonishing hidden treasure it always was?
Set in a working-class district of South Central LA, familiar to many contemporary cinema audiences, the film revolves around the life of an insomniac, slaughterhouse worker Stan, his family, assorted friends and acquaintances and the rigours of their everyday lives. Yet, despite its location within an urban environment that has now become all too recognisable as the battle-torn backdrop in a plethora of ‘Hood’ movies, Burnett presents the viewer with a subtler and infinitely more complex vision of the American underbelly, suffused with humour, anxiety, compassion and despair, often present in the same instant. It’s not that Burnett attempts to circumvent harsh issues such as drugs or violence – the de rigueur urban theme; he just doesn’t revel in it and neither does he glorify it. It’s often there, lurking around the corner or casting a shadow, but instead of being mired in its immediate, physical manifestation, Killer of Sheep carries the psychological weight of a broader systemic violence, all too frequently ignored, though usually the catalyst for the kind of social eruption that has blighted minority communities across Los Angeles throughout its history – the Zoot Suit riots of 1942, the Watts riots of 1965 and the LA riots of 1992 being the most notorious examples of the city’s simmering ethnic tensions reaching boiling point.
Burnett, who grew up in the Watts district of LA, also worked as cinematographer on the movie, shooting the film over an indeterminate number of weekends, with a largely ad hoc crew. Filmed with the eye of an insider and in a manner that manages to chronicle without romanticising, this is not a rose-tinted vision of race, class or the inner city; instead, operating within an organic plot structure, Burnett’s camera and script both manage to capture the full diversity of a very localised community by exploring the nuances of (Stan’s) life in a manner usually overlooked by the broad brush strokes commonly used in Hollywood productions. In one scene, Stan questions the very notion that he might even be considered poor, by countering that he actually gives stuff away to charity, highlighting the relative aspects of issues such as wealth and class within such a social microcosm.
Killer of Sheep also brings into question the traditional depiction of patriarchy and machismo seen in many interpretations of minority cultures, such as Black Exploitation cinema. Stan’s twilight existence is exemplified by a reluctance to reciprocate his wife’s advances throughout the film, which acts as a precursor to a number of scenes in which women take over male positions of power. His near-somnambulant state is like an American update of the old Chinese proverb; he’s a man that has a nightmare about working in a slaughterhouse, only to wake and discover that he may be a slaughterhouse worker having a nightmare about being a (black) man in contemporary America; burdened, in an era of change, by a history that has frozen him in time.
One of the film’s early scenes, showing a group of young boys play-fighting, is reminiscent of Burnett’s own childhood memories, of the urban environment he grew up in, but also reveals one of his major cinematic influences. Not happy with the traditional portrayals of the inner cities and its inhabitants offered by the mainstream, Burnett instead turned to Italian neo-realism, for its aesthetic as well as sociological qualities. The barren landscape on which the boys pitch their battle resembles that of many post-war Italian cities, as seen through the eyes of neo-realist directors such as Vittorio De Sica, allowing Burnett to comment upon the stagnant social conditions in many parts of LA, over a decade after the ravages of the Watts riots. The use of other common neo-realist devices – monochrome photography, improvised acting, child and non-professional actors – feeds into the organic plot structure and generates a greater sense of realism than would a traditional linear process.
Recently, Burnett directed an episode of the US documentary series The Blues, underlying his deep interest in the cultural significance music has played in shaping African-American identity, not just as a positive form of artistic expression but also as a warts-and-all cultural and spiritual outpouring. The soundtrack to Killer of Sheep, a vibrant mixture of jazz, blues and soul, forms the almost melancholic cadence which life is played out against. A one-time trumpet player, Burnett drew from his own very personal musical recollections to evoke what he describes as the way in which music ‘becomes part of your subconscious’.
Despite Burnett personally playing down any overt metaphorical credence to the Sheep in the film’s title, it’s almost impossible, in retrospect, not to juxtapose the proverbial lambs going to their slaughter with the plight of a disenfranchised minority. The mid-70s formed a remarkable conduit for African-Americans, between the euphoria and promise of the Civil Rights era in the 60s and the despair and anger so inherent in the music and films of the hip-hop generation of the 80s, a period in which the suicide rate of African-Americans rocketed from being the lowest, in 1970, of any ethnic group in the USA, to being the highest by the end of the decade (see Cornell West’s Nihilism in Black America for more on this subject), a nihilism that seems to form the basis of so many contemporary films, but which Burnett, almost single-handedly, has constantly sought to counter in his body of work.
Killer of Sheep reminds modern audiences, raised on the sudden impact of ‘shoot ’m up’ action movies, that you can say just as much with a whisper as you can with a scream, without the risk of deafening your listener to future comments.
Watch the trailer for Killer of Sheep: