14 August 2008

Killer of Sheep (1977)

Written & Directed by: Charles Burnett
Full credits from IMDb

Burnett’s long-delayed, post-neorealist classic, The Killer of Sheep, is set in Los Angeles’ Watts, which he presents as a dusty, shelled-out wasteland. About black poverty and malaise, the film is sauntering slice-of-lifery set against a sweaty, shirtless ‘70s; with ghetto as war-torn cityscape, it resembles The Bicycle Thief, though absent a bourgeois, heartstrings-tugging narrative; or, with its tightly-packed neighbors and urban blight, it leans towards The Little Fugitive, but without that film’s Coney Island idyll. The kids turn the neighborhood’s vacant lots into makeshift playgrounds, but Watts offers no real escape, only mean streets full of decimation, television thieves and afro-picking idlers. Kids exercise their pent-up aggression through heaving—rocks at freight trains and signage, dirt clumps at each other. The setting transcends the role of a metaphor for its characters’ lives—it simply is their lives.

In this milieu, Burnett fashions a slight narrative, a few days in the life of one representative man (Henry G. Sanders) as he struggles to stay straight in the face of depression, both economic and emotional. Though a narrative film, it functions strongest as historical document, a ground-level sociological study. His eye for setting is as sharp as his eye for detail, and the film is best in its small moments of kitchen-table intimacy, both poignant and funny—a mother checking her reflection in the dirty lid of a saucepot, a teenager pouring half a box of sugar atop his Frosted Flakes, husband and wife stiffly, sadly dancing to Dinah Washington’s “This Bitter Earth”. Burnett’s style is loose and digressive; he’s happy to spend a good 60 seconds or so following two men as they carry a motor from an apartment down to the bed of a truck. It’s in these frames, these moments of real inner-city struggle, that Killer of Sheep finds its strength.

As well as its clever symbols, such as a car trip cut short by a blown tire: with no spare, the travelers are forced to drive home on the flat, as the characters of the film push through their lives in comparable fashion. But the most stirring symbol is the image of the title’s sheep (Sanders is the killer) led to the slaughter, then skinned and gutted, to which Burnett cuts after we see a few horseplaying boys or a woman announcing that she’s pregnant. With such despondent cynicism, Burnett looks ahead to the future of his people, but by scoring the film with the sounds of black musicianship—jazz, soul, blues—he looks at the past, too. The soundtrack gives the story historical context and, as such, is essential—worth the 30-year wait. Killer of Sheep is not so much about one family at one point in time as it is about one family at one point within an ongoing cultural continuum. Grade: A

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