The Humanists: Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1977)


by Colin Marshall

It's easy to see Killer of Sheep as a social tract, a cinematic essay on the boredom and hopelessness of black families in crumbling, industrial 1970s Watts — a bit too easy. Though Burnett's best-known film — and for 30 of the last 32 years, a seldom-seen one — provides a window of unparalleled clarity and style into its time and place, to read it as an elaborate argument about the entrapment of the urban black working class is to choose the most convenient but least interesting interpretation. The unambitious film writer can simply parse the images of the title character's endless sheep-skinning toil in the abattoir that employs him as metaphors for the lives of he and his wife, children and friends — grim, desensitizing and doomed — and call it a day. “And thus we see,” it's easy to imagine such a (likely non-American) critic pronouncing, “the poor forced into deadening oblivion, as lambs to the slaughter, by the callous society that surrounds them.”

Were that truly the extent of the movie's depth, you wouldn't be reading about it here. The “statement film” probably has its place — he admitted, wearily — though fictional cinema has always been a remarkably ineffective forum in which to make an argument, allowing the filmmaker to spread the sheen of truth, at least within their picture's world, on any old flight of fancy. Even documentary film lacks a firm barrier between sound reasoning and unhinged agitprop; it's no accident that the best members of the genre simply observe, casting off the nonsensical obligation to push a thesis. Charles Burnett seems, on some level, to have known this when he made Killer of Sheep, a latter-latter-day piece of neorealism with the aesthetic stylization of that subgenre and the unstaged feel of a nonfiction film.

Given that Burnett originally shot it as his UCLA film school thesis without intent to distribute or even publicly screen, it's all the more impressive to reflect on what the film does — or, to put it more precisely, to reflect on what the film doesn't do. It's a common filmmaker's temptation, especially among the young ones and those embedded in a film school environment, to peddle their own worldview and grind the axe through subtle — or, more often, hilariously yet unintentionally unsubtle — tricks of framing and causality. Either Burnett eschews this practice or performs it so well as to go undetected, though my money's on the former. While their efforts may often end in vain, he never for one moment appears to strip his characters of their agency; at no point do they come off as puppets carrying out a preordained design of modern struggle and malaise.

Much of this surely has to do with Killer of Sheep's structure, which sits just this side of nonnarrative. Its scenes are those from the life of Stan, a 35-ish slaughterhouse worker and father of two, and from the lives that orbit his. The viewer enters in media res , with neither introduction nor exposition, as the kids in Stan's neighborhood continue what must be their perpetual search for improvised amusement, hanging around train tracks, tossing rocks and swiping one another's footwear. The picture's short runtime also captures, among other events, arhythmically real conversations, frustrated home-improvement projects, singing and dancing, a game of dominoes, purchases and sales, the rebuffing of various dubious moneymaking schemes and an aborted trip to the track. Never are these sheets of life hammered into a standard story's frame, much less that of the expected morality play, and indeed, they'd be bent beyond recognition in the process of fitting them to the curve prescribed by a cinematic blueprint. The blessed absence of time-blunted movie devices brings the cast of characters to life and makes the elements of their comings and goings real: Stan, his wife, his son, his daughter and his broad, loose web of friends and acquaintances surely lived before the film's first shot and live on after it.

Freed from the obligation to track closely any individual or series of events, the movie observes whatever happens to be richest, shifting its focus with impunity. In this particular case, what happens to be richest is what's poorest, or what's born of the characters' not-far-from-impoverished circumstances. The neighborhood children, from toddlers to teenagers, are collectively engaged in a hunt for free entertainment, converting even the most desolate or dangerous locations into makeshift playgrounds, dodging dirt clods, timing handstands and leaping from rooftop to rooftop. Trying to get a disused car running, Stan buys a used $15 engine under seriously sketchy circumstances, only to have it immediately roll from his truck's bed, irreparably damaged. A group of friends appear all seated and ready to go somewhere, only for one of them to reach through the air where their immobile car's windshield should be and grab the beer set on the hood. Another cluster, with much fanfare, sets off for a day at the races, only to be permanently sidelined by a flat and no spare. (Travel far enough down the socioeconomic spectrum, it seems, and the burden of auto part failure grows well-nigh Sisyphean.)

At the center of all this stands young yet preternaturally weary Stan, the “killer of sheep” himself. Wesley Morris describes his demeanor as “well north of suicidal but south of content,” which just about sums it up. Looking to be running through the motions of life though occasionally livened with just barely enough force of will to attempt affecting change, Stan bears the impassive, distantly melancholic expression of a man on the verge of total, all-consuming resignation. But at least he's holding himself steady above the abyss, evincing as he does a certain pride in his situation. He's not poor, he argues to a friend, because he makes donations to the Salvation Army, and how could someone poor afford to do that? He makes reference to an unseen local, “Walter,” whose family is rumored to huddle around the oven in their coats and boil greens pulled from a vacant lot for sustenance. Now Walter, he's poor.

Whether by subtle, deliberate craftsmanship, a beginner's lack of limiting preconceptions about what film should be or a bit of both, Killer of Sheep delivers the experience of life unreduced, albeit life carefully edited, arranged and aestheticized. But isn't that precisely what cinema, at its best, should be? Built on the framework of and thus inseparable from its soundtrack of Dinah Washington, Paul Robeson, Earth Wind & Fire and Louis Armstrong, the $10,000 movie's $150,000 music rights tab obstructed a commercial distribution for three decades straight. Between its initial exhibitions and its 2007 restoration and release, the film was rightly whispered about as something truly special, to be tracked down and watched, rapt, at every screening, no matter how obscure or inconvenient.

Narrowly hailed in the 80s and 90s as a refreshing departure from the relative mainstream — referring variously to the black film mainstream, the indie mainstream, the realist mainstream or otherwise — it's today widely hailed as the very same. This may speak to its irreproducible combination of Burnett's prematurely masterful technique and the beneficial accident-proneness inherent to such a constrained budget and scale. (Many of the picture's best moments — and this is a picture of fine moments — occur in ways no director could have plotted out with any precision.) But it could be that, owing to its long life spent underground, most of the filmmaking world has simply not had the opportunity to internalize the film's lessons. That's a pity; Killer of Sheep is just the sort of thing cinema is for.

All feedback happily accepted at colinjmarshall at gmail.