Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep (1977) has perhaps been more written about and appreciated than actually seen. By now there's no question that it belongs in the canon of greatest American movies. And now that the problem of song rights has been resolved, people can finally see it. Burnett had included a selection of music in the film ranging from Dinah Washington to Paul Robeson, without securing the rights. Thirty years later, all of these issues have been cleared up and UCLA has struck a new, 35mm print to be officially released in U.S. theaters for the first time. (The distributor, Milestone, will follow with a DVD release of this and other rare Burnett films.)
Seeing the film on the big screen in 2007, I can report that, yes Virginia, it's that good. If this film had been more widely available, it would have a secure place not only as the greatest achievement in African-American cinema but also as one of the great achievements in cinema, period. Burnett made the film for a reported $10,000 (mostly grant money) for his master's thesis at UCLA. It received an award at the Berlin Film Festival and was selected in 1990 for the second batch of 25 films in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry. I once heard a story about how a UCLA film professor grabbed a print of the film from the school's archive and showed it to his classroom full of cocky, know-it-all students -- effectively silencing them.
Shot in black-and-white, Burnett deliberately evokes Italian Neo-Realist classics like Roberto Rossellini's Open City (1945) and Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves (1948) as well as John Cassavetes' Shadows (1959). The film is set near Watts in a ramshackle, all-black neighborhood. (Thematically comparing Watts to bombed-out, post-war Italy was a daring move all by itself.) Stan (Henry G. Sanders) works in a slaughterhouse and can't shake his melancholy mood when he's at home. He can't sleep and tries to articulate his feelings to his friends and neighbors -- such as trying to appreciate the feel of a coffee cup against his cheek -- but no one understands him. As an intelligent, sensitive artist, Burnett must have experienced this feeling more than once during his lifetime.
Killer of Sheep contains no real plot, although the lack of money and a vague threat of extinction constantly hover around the frame. In one scene, two thugs show up at Stan's house and ask him to join them on a murder plot; he won't have to kill anyone, but he'll be paid. Stan, followed by his wife (Kaycee Moore), angrily rebukes them. Later, Stan and a pal decide to buy a used motor from a slightly sleazy neighborhood man, and they apparently use up a good portion of Stan's paycheck to do so. But everything goes south when the motor falls from the back of a truck and cracks on the pavement. In a third section, Stan and a group of friends excitedly head off for a day trip to the country and/or the racetrack when a flat tire forces them to turn around and head home.
In-between, Burnett concentrates on moments and images. In one memorable scene, Stan and his wife -- we never learn her name -- slow dance for several minutes in silhouette in front of a window. Their touch is loving and relaxed, but the song Burnett has chosen, Dinah Washington's heartbreaking "This Bitter Earth," casts a different tone on things. Children provide a good number of these in-between moments, or what Ozu termed "pillow shots." In one scene, a young boy witnesses two men climbing over a fence with a television set. In other scenes, a girl wears a rubber dog mask (a striking image) and children play in rubble-strewn vacant lots, stacking bricks and playing with abandoned building materials instead of things like basketballs or jump ropes.
Occasionally, Burnett shows Stan at work, herding or counting sheep (a reference to his insomnia?) or dealing with amputated animal parts. We never hear the metallic grind of the slaughterhouse; Burnett always drops the sound and uses a song instead. Even more startling, however, is the fact that Burnett constantly crosses these slaughterhouse scenes with the images of playing children. Are these children the equivalent of sheep that will be herded into a predetermined future of nothingness? It's a bleak, bleak thing to do. But Burnett is also aware that, where there are children, there is always at least a bit of hope. One of the happier images in the film shows Stan enjoying a backrub from his daughter, and the film ends with the news that one of Stan's neighbor's is expecting a baby.
The real miracle of Killer of Sheep is that it's a non-exploitative view of African-American life; it assumes that viewers will have the patience, grace and intelligence to see it as it is. Burnett never panders to audience expectations the way that his contemporaries Melvin Van Peebles (Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song) and Gordon Parks (Shaft) were forced to. Only a few other filmmakers, such as Kasi Lemmons (Eve's Bayou) and occasionally Spike Lee have followed in these footsteps. (Even David Gordon Green's George Washington shows a bit of Burnett's influence.)