For many years I counted myself among those fortunate enough to have seen Charles Burnett's 1977 film Killer of Sheep. Produced as Burnett's thesis project while in the master's program at UCLA, Killer of Sheep has enjoyed a near-mythological (and richly deserved) reputation as one of the greatest films ever made. It was among the first 50 films inducted in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress, and in 2002 the National Society of Film Critics named it as one of the 100 Essential Films of all time. And yet, despite the acclaim and accolades the film has garnered over the decades, Killer of Sheep has remained largely unseen, making the occasional appearance at film festivals or on college campuses. But all of that has changed, as the complicated nightmare of music clearance rights that held the film back for 30 years have finally been cleared, and Burnett's masterpiece is making its way to art house theaters across the country.
Set in the Watts, Killer of Sheep is a brilliant examination of the poor, African-American experience in the inner city. 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."
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."
Likewise, Sanders drew from his own experiences when portraying Stan. "I grew up in the projects in Houston," recalls the actor. "So I saw first-hand poverty and frustration. I knew what it was like to want the best for your family, but not having the means or opportunity to do so."
What narrative there is in Killer of Sheep rests primarily on the slumped, everyman shoulders of Sanders, whose weary gaze and melancholy face give the film much of its heart and soul. But an equal measure of the film's deeper emotional resonance comes from Kaycee Moore, who co-stars as Stan's unnamed wife, spending much of the film silently wondering what happened to the passion in their marriage. If Stan is the embodiment of the physical toll exacted by the ravages of poverty, then his wife is the embodiment of the emotional ravages. The constant work and pressure of life that has left Stan incapable of making love to his wife, thereby rendering him something less than a man, has also robbed his wife of her womanhood. The fact that they can no longer share intimacy has left both of them broken shells of their own humanity. Both Sanders and Moore bring such a nuanced and subtle sense of damaged spirit and lost of self to their roles – most of it conveyed silently – that it is difficult to believe these are actors.
Produced over the course of two years, Killer of Sheep was made during blaxploitation era of the 1970s, when films like Shaft and Foxy Brown were redefining the way blacks were portrayed on the screen. But while the action films of that time went a long way to subvert many of the long existing stereotypes that plagued the image of African Americans on screen, the new archetypes of that era were still larger than life caricatures. Which is what makes Killer of Sheep all the more revolutionary: its depiction of black life was solely grounded in reality.
"The 1970s was a time Hollywood realized that there was a huge black audience out there willing to pay money to see themselves on the big screen. Most of the images did not reflect what was going on in the community or they were exaggerated," says Sanders. "Killer of Sheep was a departure. Charles wanted to make a film -- a slice of life, as it were -- about the daily lives of people struggling to survive"
"I wasn't thinking of blaxploitation when I made Killer of Sheep," says Burnett. "However, blaxploitation was a phenomenon that I was talking against. I could see its negative images and their potential effect. I didn't think the main characters of those films helped to one get from point A to Point B, or the themes were relevant to reveal insight into the human experience. They had some good points, for example like the black character taking control over his destiny. Just seeing people of color on Screen without substantive roles and content doesn't serve much. It provides jobs but at the expense of images and self-esteem."
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.
Thirty years is a long time to wait for any film to be released, but it is not every film that could weather such a long span, and still emerge as relevant and revolutionary as when it was made. Killer of Sheep was brilliant when it was made, and it remains brilliant. "I have always thought of Charles Burnett as being a genius, and for me, this proves it," says co-star Kaycee Moore. "To have the filmed recognized, even thirty years later, is truly a wonderful thing."