Viewed without any context, Killer of Sheep is difficult to appreciate or even grasp, because writer-director Charles Burnett eschews many of the tools that make narrative films accessible: Killer of Sheep doesn’t have much tension or structure, and the production values are, to be kind, humble. Killer of Sheep is also quite grim, depicting the hardscrabble lives of low-income African-Americans in mid-’70s Los Angeles. However, the harmony between the storytelling and the subject matter has made Killer of Sheep a favorite among some cinephiles. After the movie languished in obscurity for 20 years, Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh endorsed a 2007 re-release that introduced Killer of Sheep to a broader audience.
The picture’s behind-the-scenes story is integral to understanding the significance that some fans attach to the movie. Burnett made the feature on weekends over the course of several years while he was a film student at UCLA, and there’s a huge difference between the realistic world Burnett depicts and the sensationalized milieu featured in mainstream features of the same era. Instead of the jive-talking junkies and pimps that dominated Hollywood’s ’70s portrayal of urban black life, the characters in Killer of Sheep are poorly educated strivers trapped by disenfranchisement and poverty.
The main character, Stan (Henry Sanders), makes a meager living in an industrial slaughterhouse (hence the title), and then deals with assorted pressures in his home life. His friends tempt him with involvement in petty crime, his house is overstuffed with relatives who can’t afford separate residences, and everything from his car to his sink is in disrepair. Further, Stan’s kids play in dangerous vacant lots, his wife (Kaycee Moore) waffles between affection and alienation, and Stan’s whole life seems like an endless loop of disappointment.
Burnett’s style is, appropriate to the film’s origins, that of a student film: grainy black-and-white photography and terrible sound recording stitched together into dramatic scenes and lyrical montages. Adding to the amateur-hour vibe, Burnett’s storytelling choices are erratic. At his most focused, he uses painstaking detail to depict a mundane vignette (like Stan and a friend carrying a motor down a flight of stairs). At his sloppiest, he veers away from promising story threads mid-stream. Supporters of the movie consider this style intentional, a metaphor representing the stop-and-start flow of real life, but it’s also possible Burnett simply failed to get the footage he needed.
Whatever the case, Killer of Sheep is significant as one of the most fiercely independent black films of the ’70s, a soft-spoken alternative to the sociopolitical fireworks of, say, Melvin Van Peebles’ movies. Killer of Sheep is not particularly compelling, but it’s easy to understand why some consider it an important museum piece.
Killer of Sheep: FUNKY