Killer of Sheep
Charles Burnett still hasn’t gotten his due. If he had, he wouldn’t struggle so much to finance his films. In spite of his later difficulties, Burnett’s first feature—his thesis film at UCLA—Killer of Sheep (1978), has gone on to influence quite a few artists in the late 20th and early 21st century. You can find traces of it in Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher (1999) and David Gordon Green’s George Washington (2000), on the cover of Mos Def’s The Ecstatic (2009) (an image taken from the film), and in the stew of influences that make up David Jenkins’ Moonlight (2016).
Killer of Sheep returns to the cultural conversation now with the recent interest, restorations, and touring film programs dedicated to the L.A. Rebellion. Coined by historian Clyde Taylor in 1986, the L.A. Rebellion is a term for the late 1960s and early 1970s African-American and African UCLA students who successfully got the university to create an ethnographic program devoted to the studies of black communities. Along with Burnett, Julie Dash, Larry Clark, Haile Gerima, and Billy Woodberry are associated with the umbrella term. All of them made diverse films while also collaborating on each other’s projects. Perhaps the finest and certainly the most well known film from this group is Killer of Sheep.
Killer of Sheep is a rough-hewn, handmade black-and-white film. With its non-professional actors (save for Stan, the lead played by Henry G. Sanders) and its on-location shooting in South Central Los Angeles, it doesn’t look like a film from the 1970s, but one from the 1950s—a cousin to Italian Neorealism. In an interview with La Revue du cinéma, Burnett said he wanted the film’s “texture to be rough, as if the movie had been made by someone who didn’t know how to make movies … what I tried to do here is to preserve a certain form of life, to record it.” However, to label Killer of Sheep as simply an iteration of realism would be inaccurate, for this is a film that’s quietly respectful in its evocation of an impoverished neighborhood and sublime in the intimate details of familial and social bonds. It’s a film in which a couple slow dances to Dinah Washington’s “This Bitter Earth” in one scene and in another, a montage of sound and image pregnant with metaphor, Paul Robeson’s rendition of “The House I Live In” plays over sheep being lead to the slaughter.
Virtually plot-less, Sheep alternates its focus on Stan, his wife and kids, and the people in his Watts neighborhood, representing a community oppressed, yet teeming with life. Stan works at a slaughterhouse, and it’s changing him so much so his wife (Kaycee Moore) does not recognize him anymore. He’s distant, frowns, and has the thousand-yard stare. Outside, in the neighborhood, it’s dog-eat-dog. Kids and adults alike must fend for themselves. Children taunt, throw rocks, and wrestle with each other. Adults borrow, rob, or barter just to make it to the next day. Inside, in the homestead, however, life’s pressures dissolve for a little while. Home is haven, at least in Stan’s it is.
Again and again, Burnett returns to scenes set in Stan’s kitchen. First, we see Stan on all fours, bare-chested, working on a new kitchen floor. Moments later, in a low-angle two shot, he joins his friend at the kitchen table over a cup of tea. Stan takes pleasure at what the hot air reminds him of—a woman’s warm forehead while making love. His friend doesn’t recognize such a small moment of joy, even teasing him for it. “I don’t go for women who got malaria.”
In an essay on How Green Was My Valley (1941), while analyzing dinner table scenes in John Ford’s film, Adrian Martin asks: “Could we draw up an entire taxonomy of cinema styles—by genre, auteur, period, nation etc.—in terms of how they each depict the social manners at table?’” Martin focuses on dinner table scenes in Ford’s film to draw attention to a concept he calls “social mise-en-scène,” which differs from regular mise-en-scène (to put it simply, the organization of everything—people, places, things—in front of the camera), because it draws upon behavioral and societal codes. In Sheep, the kitchen table is where people rest, are at ease, and where men like Stan restore their humanity after the monotony and alienation of the slaughterhouse.
“You never smile anymore,” Stan’s wife says to him, as he sits with his head down. Their daughter witnesses the unfolding scene between mom and dad before leaving the kitchen. Stan’s wife suggests getting some sleep, but he simply goes back to working on the kitchen floor, as she watches the man she loves so distant and far off. He does not utter a single word during this second kitchen scene.
In the final scene in the kitchen, an hour into the movie, Burnett shows the entire family at the table. Positioned at gut-level, the camera depicts the space as closed-off and cramped. The son storms out of the room, the daughter collects the dishes and marches out of the frame, leaving Stan and his wife alone. His eyes blank, he attempts to make small talk. She grabs his arm and informs him that “Tomorrow’s Saturday.” No response. “Let’s go to bed.” No response. Loudly, she gathers her plates, pushes in her chair, and walks out of the kitchen.
Then Stan repositions himself and welcomes his daughter—ever the silent witness—in his lap. The wife watches her husband and daughter in the living room. Although only a few feet away, Burnett shoots the scene in such a way—Stan and his daughter framed by the threshold—that the kitchen looks like it’s yards away, as if the wife were looking at a scene from a movie.
Saturated in blood and guts all day, Stan brings his work home with him. And yet, as if a veil had been lifted, as if the wind suddenly changed direction, the mood shifts. It comes seemingly out of nowhere. “What makes it rain?” his daughter asks. “Why it’s the devil beating his wife,” he teases her as his wife looks on, beaming at his sudden return to life. The last scene of the film, over “This Bitter Earth” once more, we see Stan at the slaughterhouse, smiling as he’s corralling sheep like a biblical shepherd. It seems things will turn out okay, and the institutionalized oppression and his threadbare conditions are not going to bury Stan. He moves forward, taking life as it comes, day by day.
The film’s first time on DCP is being celebrated by Milestone with a limited theatrical run at IFC Center. Filmmaker Charles Burnett present at select screenings.