Film Review #137: Killer of Sheep
Director: Charles Burnett
Cast: Henry Gale Sanders, Kaycee Moore, Charles Bracy
As a graduate student in the film program at UCLA in the early 70s, Charles Burnett admired those casts of thousands in mainstream Hollywood movies because the crowds of extras – costumed, reflecting the protagonists, and going about the daily life created in a movie’s on-screen world – provided such a deep sense of the place in which a story occurred. Killer of Sheep, Burnett’s thesis project and first feature-length film, had no such budget, so he set about creating that backdrop of “deep place” not with crowds but one by one. Burnett’s story of Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders) and his family – recent arrivals from the South in the Watts section of 1970s Los Angeles, whose hopes for a fresh American start by the classic means of going West have so quickly turned bittersweet – is peopled with a constant stream of kids from start to finish.
From the first scene, in which a father admonishes a scowling boy that his little brother will always be his concern – Burnett says this is a rite of passage “we all went through” – to the gangs of boys playing mock battles behind make-shift shields in a vacant lot, wobbling three at once on a bike till barking dogs topple them, running, fence-sitting, leaping gracefully as deer between rooftops, hammering caps with a wrench on a rock, to the girls jumping rope, singing along with the radio to their dolls, dressing in an oblong of light beside a massive dark chest of drawers, shooting their own rocks from rooftops along with the boys, avidly whispering little-girl secrets through an open car window at a curb – Burnett’s inserted clips of kids busily growing up accumulate to a resonance and weight that scaffold the film and provide some of the most memorable brief studies of youth anywhere. Indeed one of the film’s final scenes has a young woman visiting Stan’s household to announce her joyful news of a coming child.
Austere, deceptively leisurely in pace – Burnett tightly story-boarded and scripted the film despite the action’s casual surface – and filmed with the eye of a master black and white still photographer, Killer of Sheep has what The New Yorker’s David Denby in April, upon the film’s first-ever theatrical opening in the US, called the “bedraggled eloquence of an old blues record.” More pointedly, the critic Michael Tolkin has said, “If this were an Italian film from 1953, we would have every scene memorized.”
Instead, Burnett was part of a group of young Black L.A.-based filmmakers that included Julie Dash, Larry Clark, Ben Caldwell and Haile Gerima, whose work rebelled against the commercial “blaxploitation” films of the day, concentrating instead on what Burnett called “our own stories.” He intended Killer of Sheep to be the first of a film trilogy that would follow Stan, his family and friends.
Shot mostly on weekends and originally finished in 1973, Killer of Sheep didn’t have a regular theatrical release because Burnett couldn’t get permissions for some of the music clips. This eclectic mix included Paul Robeson vocals (sometimes used satirically), swooning Gershwin strings, crashing Rachmaninoff piano chords, Scott Joplin rags, Louis Armstrong’s “West End Blues,” Dinah Washington’s slow-hand heartbreaker, “This Bitter Earth,” and Cecil Gant’s “I Wonder,” whose “haunting melody” Burnett says inspired the film to begin with.
In 1977 ad again in 1979, Killer of Sheep enjoyed short non-theatrical US tours – the Community Folk Art Center’s Gina Stankovitz says she’s sure founder Herb Williams brought this film to Syracuse in that era – mostly in galleries and museums on the East Coast and in the Midwest. In 1981 Burnett took the film to warmly receptive festival audiences and judges in Toronto and several European cities, earning a prize at Berlin.
Thanksgiving week is an apt time to finally receive this film on DVD because we might meditate on how lucky we are to have it at all. Burnett, who is still making movies – he’s currently filming a feature called Red Soil due out next year – says he didn’t know what bad shape the original 16 mm print was in until the UCLA Film Archives phoned him up to tell him. Restored and printed for the first time in 35 mm, Killer of Sheep’s limited US release this spring kept it on a few art-house screens till mid-October.
Milestone’s new two-disc DVD set also contains four shorts, the original cut of Burnett’s My Brother’s Wedding (1983) along with a brand new director’s cut, a brief clip of several Killer cast members reunited last April in a Santa Monica diner, and a commentary track with Burnett and the Lincoln Center Film Society’s Richard Peña.
Killer of Sheep is so titled because Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders) could only find work in a slaughterhouse where he kills and butchers sheep – curiously alert, trusting animals seen in a sunny haze that emphasizes their nightmarishly abrupt deaths. One scene of Stan moving a rack of skinned carcasses on hooks hanging heads-down cuts quickly to two boys on Stan’s front steps in a contest over who can hold a head-stand braced against the wall longest. In one remarkable shot, the kitchen’s drop-leaf table nearly fills the screen as Stan and his friend Bracy (Charles Bracy) sit opposite one another, their bodies squeezed inside the frame’s edge as their thighs and shoulders hunch over, curl around the table, transforming this meeting spot for family and friends into a kind of life-raft they cling to. Meanwhile, as Stan’s wife (Kaycee Moore) tries to revive this decent, sorrowful man’s interest in intimacy, their kids Stan Jr. (Jack Drummond) and little Angela (Angela Burnett) bicker and grow, Stan has visits from his buddies, tries to fix his car, sets out for a short holiday at the Los Alamedas race-track that fizzles out with a flat tire. You could say not much happens. But watching this film just makes you grateful, pure and simple.
This review appeared in the 11/21/7 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that did not open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth.