In Killer of Sheep, Henry Gayle Sanders evokes both the hope and despair of Watts during the 1970s.
By Leonard Quart
Charles Burnett is a black American director whose indie films have never received the recognition theyve deserved. I recall seeing and being impressed by his most commercially successful film, To Sleep with Anger (1990), which imaginatively combined black folk material, a touch of prose poetry, and a realistic depiction of middle-class black family life in Los Angeles.
But a much more original work was his earlier, stunningly shot Killer of Sheep (1977), which Burnett filmed over a series of weekends on a shoestring budget of less than $10,000, using friends and relatives as his actors. Milestone Film acquired the rights to the movie (which never acquired commercial distribution) after Burnett had collaborated with the U.C.L.A. Film and Television Archive to restore it. Killer of Sheep was blown up to 35mm and was provided with a significantly improved sound and picture quality. And its now getting its first full theatrical release.
Killer of Sheep takes place in and around the Watts ghetto in mid-70s Los Angeles. The central figure in this realistic, understated film is a depressed slaughterhouse worker, Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), who is married with two children, makes little money and labors at a dehumanizing job that he hates. The film provides an episodic portrait of this decent workingmans daily life. Nothing dramatic occurs, but Burnett invests his images of ordinary activities with such emotional resonance that the everyday becomes luminous and poetic.
The world that surrounds Stan is eloquently evoked. Its one where violent and criminal behavior and venomous and volatile relationships between men and women are the norm. The film also observes children playing wildly in rubble-filled abandoned lots, on railway tracks, and in back alleys, sometimes with pure joy and a sense of adventure, other times out of control and just mean, throwing rocks at each other and at passing trains. Burnett allows the action to unfold in long, lingering, often dialogue-free takes without shaping it into a tight, controlled narrative or underlining its meaning. Much of the film is shot with a hand-held camera, using grainy film stock and documentary-like cinematography, making what transpires seem natural and totally devoid of self-consciousness.
Stan himself suffers from insomnia, and sits at the family dinner table usually at an emotional remove. Hes filled with despair, and has pulled away sexually and emotionally from a wife who still loves him. He quietly feels the hopelessness of his life, which Burnett implicitly suggests is not much different than the fate of the sheep hanging from hooks in the slaughterhouse. Its a life without genuine options, where every paltry attempt to change things, from buying a car motor to a trip to the country, turns into a minor debacle. One ever-present alternative is crime, and two brutal men offer Stan a chance to go in on a murder plot and make some money. The men appeal to Stans idea of manliness, and liken a mans fists to that of an animals teeth. Stan is not interested, but its his more dramatic, aggressive wife (Kaycee Moore) who chases them away.
Stan is not alone in his anguish. He has a loyal wife, friends, and warm feelings for his sweet little daughter, who he can even make laugh. But its Burnetts gift for juxtaposing music and imagery that offers a glimmer of hope amidst the films vision of daily desolation. Burnett wonderfully uses a soundtrack of blues and other black music sung by Etta James, Dinah Washington and Paul Robeson, among others.
When Stan dances intimately with his wife near a sunlit window, Dinah Washingtons profoundly moving This Bitter Earth plays on the soundtrack. Stan abruptly turns away when sexual feeling rears its head, leaving his wife to cry despondently and engage in a reverie about her Southern girlhood. What consoles us is the song whose words combine both feelings of lamentation and transcendence:
While a voice within me cries, Im sure someone will answer my call.
Burnett has made a minor masterpiece that avoids sentimentalizing societys victims, indulging in political cant, and implicitly exalting nihilistic behavior. The film conveys that there is hope and beauty buried in misery, and it does so with nary a false note.