Title: Killer of Sheep
Director: Charles Burnett
Cast: Henry G. Sanders, Kaycee Moore, Charles Bracy, Angela Burnett Eugene Cherry, Jack Drummond
Synopsis: Set against a sun-bleached South Central Los Angeles, Killer of Sheep looks at the life of Stan, worn by the tedium of working in a slaughterhouse. In his disaffected state, Stan is withdrawn from his family and friends struggling with the mundanity of life.
Critique: Charles Burnett’s threadbare film is a definitive work of American neo-realism. It is an independent film in the truest sense of the word, diligently faithful in illustrating the day-to-day life of residents in the lower-class, poverty-stricken Watts district. Burnett’s direction engenders a thought-provoking atmosphere in its unemphatic aesthetic that manages to speak volumes about the quality of life for black people in this country. Killer of Sheep emits a naturalistic potency; the dusty aridity and cooked locale feel locked in time, utterly distinctive and yet this doesn’t look or feel like any other Los Angeles-set film before or after.
Burnett records his actors like a fly on the wall documentarist (as if Frederick Wiseman made ventured into dramatic filmmaking), giving the film a moody timbre that allows us to settle into the compositions, and their muted actions, and facial expressions.
The otherwise grisly nature of the slaughterhouse work is distorted into another everyday banality. The violence is blunt, and the impassive, fixed gaze from Stan (brilliantly realized by Henry Gayle Sanders) is more painful in that this is the existence afforded to him by a rutted society.
The absence of hubris and conventional moralism in exploring the issue of race is more powerful because the conditions speak for themselves. Burnett’s film is motivated but unhurried without sermonizing archetypes or obtuse ethical moralizing. Killer of Sheep is so indirectly pure and complete yet spare and chilling.
It is also one of those rare cases where the content and implications are just as vital and significant as the movie itself. It inadvertently achieves the balance of unemphatic dramatic import, grazing topical issues as unavoidable certainties – drugs, crime, and poverty aren’t the product of a dubious harbinger, but the shapeless force of societal discord. As it goes on, Killer of Sheep emits a hypnotic force, the ascension weaves a mournful dirge with spurts of Paul Robeson’s baritone anthems, pop songs, and soulful classics from giants like Louis Armstrong. The dimensions are natural, and the momentum incidentally releases cloudy emissions that will haunt and leave you in the miasma of its creation.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: The reputation of Killer of Sheep as a classic and culturally significant film is one of the main qualifiers for a spine number, and in keeping with Criterion’s film-school-like inventory, Burnett’s debut feature feels vital to the education of any budding (or well versed) cineaste. Noted as a criminally underseen title, Killer of Sheep is long overdue for the Criterion treatment.