Stan works in drudgery at a slaughterhouse. His personal life is drab. Dissatisfaction and ennui keep him unresponsive to the needs of his adoring wife, and he must struggle against influences which would dishonor and endanger him and his family.
Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep has spent the last 30 years in cinematic purgatory. Unable to get distribution when it was finished due to expensive music rights, it has been seen only by small crowds in large cities across the country. However, last year it was restored by Milestone Films and the UCLA Film and Television Archive; and how fortunate the world is because of this. Killer of Sheep is one of those works of art that penetrates to the very soul of the viewer. There has never been a film that displayed the Black experience with such sensitivity, honesty, and spirit. Burnett succeeded in making a film that is to Black America what Vittorio De Sica’s “Bicycle Thief” was to post-war Italy.
Killer of Sheep is heavily influenced by Italian Neorealism and presents a simple story all shot on location. The film revolves around Stan, a slaughterhouse worker, who seems to be in a deep depression. He and his family live in the impoverished Watts, where there is always crime and suffering. There really isn’t much of a plot to the film, but is comprised of several vignettes. We see Stan’s son and his friends having a dirt fight, Stan and a friend going out to buy a $15 car engine, Stan’s wife getting dressed for Stan to come home while their daughter sings along to a record, and various other everyday activities. The
film is full of moments of humor and joy, while others are melancholy and heartbreaking. For instance, we see Stan as he slaughters sheep at his job. It’s a disgusting, hard, and thankless job but he has to do it to support his family. It’s obvious he doesn’t like it, but he never complains about it. One night when he gets home, his wife is waiting for him. She’s gotten dressed up for him and greets him with a smile, but Stan is so tired and distant that he barely notices her. They sit at the table in silence as they have dinner. The pain of his wife cannot be ignored and we instantly connect with these two characters.
The film is unique in its approach to its subject matter. Never does a character talk about how bad life is and Burnett never tries to offer any solutions of getting out of this life. The camera just observes these characters that exist the best way they can. Life may not be perfect for them, but it’s the life they have. In doing this, our emotions and reactions feel natural. We don’t necessarily feel sorry for them but instead can empathize with their small victories and failures. This honest depiction of poverty is rare in Hollywood today, and it’s refreshing to see a film that doesn’t attempt to put the blame on anyone or sugar coat the truth. Poverty is, unfortunately, an inevitable truth of human existence and Stan and his neighborhood represent millions of quiet sufferers all over the world.
When hearing the soundtrack, it becomes understandable why Burnett didn’t want to change the music. It gives the film another level of authenticity and sincerity. The music covers several genres and eras, most of which are African American. Blues, early Jazz, Soul, Classical music, and Gospel play during various scenes. Because of this, the film feels almost like a dedication to all of Black America who have suffered throughout centuries of hardships. When he originally shot this film, Burnett set out to make a film that was “anti-Hollywood” and would help provide a “full range of the black experience”. He succeeded admirably. Although other films have gone deeper in exploring the Black experience, Killer of Sheep proves the most successful in capturing the spirit of a culture that has been underrepresented and ignored for too long.
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