For thirty years Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep has enjoyed legendary status. Completed in 1977 as Burnett's UCLA master's thesis, Killer of Sheep was seldom seen outside of film festivals or academic settings, but never the less had managed to develop a mythological reputation as one of the greatest achievements of independent American cinema. Among the first fifty films to be inducted into the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress, and named one of 100 Essential Films of all time by the National Society of Film Critics, the reputation Burnett's work has earned is richly deserved. Killer of Sheep is a brilliant film, stunning in its perceived simplicity, heartbreaking in its honesty, and unparalleled in its humanity.
Set in the Watts, Killer of Sheep is a brilliant examination of the poor, African-American experience in the inner city, told through the struggles of Stan. Henry Gayle Sanders gives a rich, textured performance as Stan, a working class father and husband who struggles to make ends meet by slaving away at a Los Angeles slaughter house, where he systematically kills sheep. "I'm working myself into my own hell," he says to a friend. Stan's hell involves more than the day-to-day grind of providing for his family, or giving in to the quick fix of turning to crime for cash. His nights are an unending struggle with insomnia, and he is unable to find the passion he needs to keep his wife (Kaycee Moore) feeling needed and desired. Everywhere he turns are the reminders that the creeping disease of poverty has afflicted both him and his family. But he refuses to accept his plight. "Man, I ain't poor," he says at one point, trying to convince his friend as much as himself. "I give away things to the Salvation Army. You can't give nothin' to the Salvation Army if you're poor."
One of the most amazing things about Killer of Sheep is the way it has impacted people over the years. Although it was completed in 1977, and shown sporadically ever since, up until this year it never enjoyed a theatrical run, nor, until now, had it been released on home video. And despite the critical reputation that has followed the film for three decades, Burnett himself was not certain how the film would be received by the mainstream public so many years after it was made. "I didn't know what the effect it would be, because it's an old film," said Burnett during a recent interview. "I was quite surprised by the response it had, and continue to be quite surprised, because it was made for small groups of people to look at a slice of life, and to make policy to help people like Stan and his situation, and that was basically it. It was for political groups who were interested in community issues and things like that."
Although Stan's day-to-day struggle to retain his dignity and provide for his family is the closest thing to a plot Killer of Sheep has to offer, ultimately that's not what the film is completely about. The film, quite simply, is the raw, visceral experience of being poor and black in America. And with little by way of traditional structure and storytelling to be found in Burnett's work, Killer of Sheep has the look and feel of a documentary more than a narrative film, as well as an aesthetic usually only found in foreign cinema. Grainy black and white photography, sparse dialog, and lingering shots of the marvelous and the mundane are the brush strokes used paint this portrait. In Burnett's world children playing in an abandoned lot, kicking up a storm of dust that blankets the sky, is all that's needed by way of exposition. He drops his audience into a world with no explanation, and trusts that pure humanity is all the explanation that will be required for his story to make sense. In that regard, Killer of Sheep has more in common with French cinema vérité or Italian neorealism than anything generally found in American film. And yet, the gritty realism that lives and breathes in every frame of Burnett's work was not as informed by the work of De Sicca or Rossellini as it was the director's own personal experiences.
"I actually started the idea of Killer of Sheep before I was aware of neorealism," explains Burnett. "It started when I was in middle school. I was very aware that there were forces in the school system that were counter productive, and were the cause of the failure and drop outs in the school system. I saw friends with potential give up and thought it was a part of a ritual to act dumb and go to camp/jail and come out as big as a house and think that was cool. It was encouraged. I remembered walking home and looking back over my shoulder and promising to reveal what I went through. I simply wanted to tell the truth. I had heard so much blaming the victim. Yes, we should have been smarter to believe the brainwashing, but we needed more, stronger black voices and leaders blocking what was going on. One would never think that the heart of the destructive problems were in the racial attitudes embedded in the school system. The most important thing was there were a number of filmmakers making film about the working poor but kept making the same picture about the worker being exploited by management, I came from a place where people were just trying to get a job, let alone, being exploited. I wanted to do a film about people that I knew about."
With the exception of perhaps 1964's Nothing But a Man, no fictional film has ever presented a more honest glimpse at the black experience in America than Killer of Sheep. And with the exception of perhaps 1984's Bless Their Little Hearts (which Burnett wrote and photographed), no film since Killer of Sheep has presented a more honest examination of black life in America. This is a deeply intimate examination of life in the ghetto, stripped of all the trappings, conventions and stereotypes that have defined the black experience on the screen. The result is a raw, brutally honesty look at the lives of poor black people, captured with an unsentimental gaze that is as ugly as it is exquisitely beautiful.
Killer of Sheep is present full frame and has been mastered from a restored print. The original film was badly deteriorated, and anyone who had seen Killer of Sheep before the restoration is likely to have seen an inferior print or a bad video dub. While the picture quality on this disc may not be up to some people's standards in general, it is amazing given the quality of older prints that were in circulation.
Killer of Sheep is presented in Dolby Digital mono. The same things that apply to the picture quality of this disc can said of the audio. The restoration of the film's sound is miraculous, and while it may not seem all that great to anyone who has never seen Killer of Sheep before, it really is a triumph.
Killer of Sheep: The Charles Burnett collection actually offers more than just the filmmaker's legendary masterpiece. This double-disc comes load with a wealth of bonus features. The first disc features an audio commentary with Burnett and film scholar Richard Pena. Burnett talks about the history of the film, and offers interesting anecdotes about the people in the film, and some of the locations where it was filmed, but this is one of those commentaries that has too many bouts of silence for my tastes. The disc also features three short films by Burnett. Several Friends (22 min.) from 1969 offers a glimpse at the environment Burnett would explore with Killer of Sheep. The Horse (14 min.) is a sad tale from 1973 about a horse not long left to this world. From 1995, When It Rains (13 min.) is one of Burnett's more light-hearted works, as a musician scours the city trying to help a friend pay her rent.
The second disc features something truly special--Burnett's 1983 feature My Brother's Wedding. What is interesting is that there are two versions of the film on the disc, the original 1983 cut that runs 118 minutes, and the new "director's cut" which runs at just under 90-minutes. NOTE: The DVD packaging is confusing, and makes it seem like the 1983 version of the film is shorter, when in truth it is the longer of the two. Though it is a film not without its flaws--most notably an uneven cast--My Brother's Wedding is still a very interesting film.
Everett Silas stars as Pierce Mundy, a thirty year-old black man who live with his parents, works at their dry cleaners, and suffers from a case of arrested development. Pierce has a huge chip on his shoulder, and his bad attitude is directed mostly at his brother Wendell (Dennis Kemper) and his finance Sonia (Gaye Shannon-Burnett), who middle class life style and values Pierce despises. When Pierce's best friend Soldier (Ronnie Bell) gets out of jail, Pierce regresses even further into his prolonged state of adolescence.
The new cut of My Brother's Wedding trims nearly thirty minutes from the film, tightening the overall pace and making it move more quickly. At the same time, some of the brief moments that gave the original cut of the film some of its character are now gone. And the shortened run-time does not do anything to make Pierce any more likeable, which is something some people may have trouble dealing with, as the film is ultimately about a selfish person, with few noticeable traits of merit. Still, it is interesting to see the significant differences in the two versions of the same film; and because My Brother's Wedding is not really the sort of film that necessarily warrants its own release, it makes for a great bonus on this disc.
Killer of Sheep: The Charles Burnett Collection is a long-overdue showcase of an American filmmaker who has yet to get his proper due. Even if you chose not own a copy of this amazing disc, you should at the very least watch it and expose yourself to an incredible piece of cinema.
David Walker is the creator of BadAzz MoFo, a nationally published film critic, and the Writer/Director of Black Santa's Revenge with Ken Foree now on DVD [Buy it now]