Killer of Sheep (1977) dir. Charles Burnett
Starring: Henry G. Sanders, Kaycee Moore, Charles Bracy, Angela Burnett
** (the Film)
**** (the DVD)
I don’t know what to say about “Killer of Sheep”. I had never heard of the film until this year, when people were discussing it as one of the greatest American films of all time. Did I miss something? Like Milestone Films’ other prominent re-release this year “I Am Cuba” “Killer of Sheep” was a ‘lost treasure’ – a slice of life tale of a working class slaughterhouse labourer in the L.A. community of Watts. African-American director Charles Burnett directed the film in 1977 and received great acclaim in film festivals at the time, but because of unsecured rights to its 22 blues and pop songs it could not be released.
This year the rights to these songs were purchased for $150,000 which finally allowed the film to be released to the public. But between 1977 and now, the film has grown in stature exponentially. It received the Critic’s Award at the 1981 Berlin Film Festival, placement in the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress in 1990, and named by the National Board of Review as one of the 100 Essential Films of All Time in 2002.
So I’m supposed to like the film right? Taking all the praise out of context, the film feels like a student film – it was Burnett’s Master’s thesis film at UCLA. Shot on Black and White, with non-professional actors – some of whom perform well, some don’t – bad sound, questionable editing, and complete non-sensical narrative. The film, purposely oblique, coasts along without little dramatic beats or turning points. To put it simply, it's boring.
The moments which make the film one of the 100 ‘essential’ films of all time are indeed good, but over-praised. Essentially there is no story, instead a series of scenes which make up the slice of life ‘neo-realism’ the film has been identified as. But it's this aspect of the film that apparently make it a 'masterpiece', so it's really just a matter of personal taste.
Firstly there’s Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders) who has the sadness of a Lamberto Maggiorani (“Bicycle Thieves”) or a Giulietta Masina (“La Strada”). He has a palpable love for his family but also a slow staggering gate which suggests a certain detachment from life. The scenes are crafted without logic or continuity with any of the scenes before or after it. There’s a scene where he’s propositioned by local criminals to help in a job – Stan declines, but this scene never pays off later. There’s a scene where he and a friend carry a car engine from his house to his truck, only to have it fall and break. This never pans out either. The most interesting scenes are with the children in the community, who rarely speak, but Burnett shows us lengthy sequences of their everyday activities- whether it’s throwing rocks at each other, riding their bicycles, jumping rooftops or doing handstands. These innocent young kids are particularly mesmerizing in their banality. These mundane occurrences feel like episodes from a National Film Board of Canada documentary.
So if I take the film as if it’s a documentary, then the film becomes interesting. The characters have a manner of speaking unheard of for a film of that time. The urban African-American slang, and their use of the n-word has become prominent and overused in today’s film, but I’ve never heard such language in a film made in 1977. But even documentaries have a story arc and changing characters, so I'm still scratching my head.
Culturally, the film has major significance. There were virtually no African-American filmmakers at the time, and any films made with African-Americans as the leads were always exploitation films. Burnett manages to give a voice to his community and show America the hardships and struggles of his peers.
Milestone Films has once again outdone themselves in the presentation of the film. The DVD is a two disc set expertly packaged with reverent artwork perfectly representing the tone of the film. Disc one contains the film as well as 3 short films by Burnett – all of which have similar style. Disc two contains Burnett’s second (and also unreleased) feature “My Brother’s Wedding” as well his latest short film produced in 2005 and many other fine tidbits. For fans of the film and cine-historians, it’s a dynamite job.
I only wish I could enjoy the film more. I appreciate it’s cultural and historical significance in African-American cinema, but it’s far far away Vittorio De Sica, or Federico Fellini.
Buy it here: Killer of Sheep: The Charles Burnett Collection