Killer of Sheep’s compelling immediacy and gritty aesthetic owes much to Italian neo-realism.
Director Charles Burnett emerged from the 1970s movement of university-based Los Angeles filmmakers who, through the establishment of independent black productions, sought to challenge and oppose Hollywood’s discriminatory structure and the 'blaxploitation' films it sanctioned.
Focusing on the authentic depiction of the common working-class black experience and the gritty realism of inner-city life, Burnett and his contemporaries had little interest in existing within a commercial framework but instead strove to establish a conscious black audience and initiate social change.
Set in an impoverished black neighbourhood in South Central LA, Burnett’s feature debut eschews a traditional trajectory, turning its penetrating gaze on Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), a black slaughterhouse worker whose monotonous, miserable existence engenders increasingly intense feelings of alienation and torpor.
An insomniac removed from his wife (Kaycee Moore) and troublesome son (Jack Drummond), Stan’s life assumes the characteristics of a tiresome dream from which he is powerless to stir. Photographed in black-and-white with a largely non-professional cast and made on the very slenderest of budgets, Killer of Sheep’s compelling immediacy and gritty aesthetic owes much to Italian neo-realism. Closer to home, its disjunctive approach to structure and its raw, uncompromising tone and interest in character psychology also recalls the pioneering spirit of John Cassavetes.
Rich in metaphor, an inventive editing technique further enhances the film’s allegorical power. This is perhaps most tellingly achieved in a juxtaposition of shots of a victimised child with the Judas sheep leading the other animals to slaughter. Burnett frequently pauses to incorporate seemingly minor moments and interludes, authentically replicating his protagonist’s somnambulant state as he drifts from one encounter to the next.
An essentially decent man "working myself into my own hell" in a hostile and emotionally barren climate, Stan at one point holds a warm coffee cup to his cheek, wistfully explaining that its heat reminds him of making love to a woman. The moment offers a reminder of the small pleasures that in hardship often serve to sustain the human spirit.
Detailing without resort to stereotype the plight and loss of self-respect suffered by members of the black community, Burnett, who also wrote, produced, edited and shot the film makes explicit reference to its rootedness and cultural heritage in the assemblage of a phenomenal soundtrack featuring the jazz and blues artists such as Paul Robeson and Little Walter.
Unfortunately, this soundtrack mired the film in legal problems and for many years it remained under-screened. The balance is about to be redressed with a restoration by the British Film Institute; you’d be wise not to miss an opportunity to see a film that deserves to be recognised as a cornerstone of contemporary American cinema.
Known, if at all, for David Gordon Green’s citing of its influence on George Washington.
Requires patience, though those that stick with it will be richly rewarded.
Worthy of discovery, see it and marvel at how how ahead of its time it feels.