“Now that ain’t me … and damn sure won’t be”
It’s not everyday that a masters thesis film is declared a national treasure by the Library of Congress and placed on the National Film Registry, but films like Charles Burnett‘s Killer of Sheep don’t come along everyday either. Shot on weekends over a year in the Watts ghetto of Los Angeles, Burnett’s debut feature was made for less than ten thousand dollars, never received a theatrical run until three decades after its 1977 completion date, and remained largely unseen due to $150,000 in outstanding music rights fees eventually paid for in part by Steven Soderbergh. The journey of its 16mm origins moving from a UCLA graduate student’s hands to art-houses across the nation forty years later thanks to a gorgeous new restoration is one for the books itself.
The craziest thing about it is that the hype is real. To think about its context in the late-70s is to acknowledge the historical weight its authentic neo-realist glimpse into the life of African Americans caught under the thumb of poverty with no escape shouldered. This was an era of gritty, violent dramas with white heroes rising above the cesspool of urban crime. When audiences were quick to accept oppressive stereotypes of black characters as pimps and villains, Burnett held a camera to the reality of families scraping by. He wrote the story of a father/husband selflessly worked to the bone. A man too tired to feel joy or respite and yet not tired enough to sacrifice his morality for easy money that would ultimately cost his soul.
His name is Stan (Henry G. Sanders): father of two (Angela Burnett‘s precocious daughter and Jack Drummond‘s rebellious teen), husband to a devoted wife (Kaycee Moore) yearning for his past warmth, and slaughterhouse employee caught within the daily grind of mass-produced death. The juxtaposition of home and work isn’t to be ignored, Stan’s position as a sheep stuck within a system he cannot escape a reality that hasn’t improved much in the intervening years. He works a job he hates because of the salary. He spends his wages on things about to die because it’s cheaper to fix them than buy everything new. And he embraces quiet pleasures experienced with little effort since anything more would risk tearing down the steely façade he cultivated to endure this fate.
We see existential crisis incarnate as life carries on like it does for many in similar situations then and now. And while Stan is the central character—so much of the film is his refusal to be tempted against God’s commandments (murder, adultery, theft, etc.) despite not having gone to church in far too long—Burnett makes it a point to also show us the world around him. Sometimes this comes in the form of brief vignettes that don’t necessarily propel the plot forward (dust-ups between children throwing rocks and beating each other up) and others in the background of set-up shots for Stan’s travels (kids jumping roof to roof above his head or hiding just off-screen as his wife yells for their son to come back home).
So there’s a level of documentary involved, the film becoming as much time capsule as fictionalized narrative within. These scenes are the most naturalistic opposite many dialogue-based moments with abrupt starts of non-actors waiting for their cue. The latter don’t ruin the overall appeal, though, because their content still outweighs the unfortunate byproducts of a minuscule budget and inexperience. Once these scripted passages get going they prove just as effective as the abstract interludes thanks to raw performances, infectious natural comedy, and a keen visual eye for exciting compositions with awkward yet beautiful cropping/blocking. Between the authenticity of depicting the seemingly mundane interactions that form a life and the formal experimentation, Killer of Sheep calls to mind many subsequent works that owe so much to its success.
That’s its true legacy: as precursor, trendsetter. It’s Charles Burnett taking what he learned in film school and from watching industry greats and bringing it into a world America too readily ignored. He put the spotlight on a sensitive black man striving to build a better life for his family without sacrificing his humanity. Stan isn’t afraid to refuse amoral propositions or make sure the neighborhood knows it isn’t out of weakness. This is a man brimming with pride, one who sees what he has as a product of hard work even if they’re barely scraping by. He walks through life not with a frown as some point out, but a physical fatigue born from a life where his mind is crossing off chores on a never-ending list.
Stan’s life is bigger than just himself and Sanders expertly portrays the strain of shouldering that type of responsibility. He hasn’t the time or strength for anything but the simple spoils of his work, whether the steam of a cup of coffee his house is never without or the smile of his daughter bouncing on his lap with a carefree attitude afforded by his constant vigilance. His wife is making sacrifices too, but I wish there was a little more three-dimensionality to her besides a yearning for her man’s touch. Her pain becomes more a product of his stress than something she can own herself since her emotional spectrum is shown as an effect of his existence whereas the children all conversely exist without such permanent connection.
The result is a universal glimpse at adulthood where there are always more pitfalls to success than opportunities for it. It’s a look at poverty’s many forms and how crime (two young men hilariously stealing a TV or Stan’s friends looking for an accomplice in murder) provides a way out from a life dictated by frustration and futility. The more that we see inside the slaughterhouse (know that there are a couple graphic scenes within) the more we anticipate a mirroring of its tragic cycle with a human death juxtaposed outside. It’s not a spoiler to say Burnett’s film isn’t so bleak. His lead’s a man trying to be better and as such his film is one with an inherent optimism and hope that that’s the correct choice.
courtesy of Milestone