This is the second year in a row that I have been lucky enough to see what amounts to a “lost” film. Last year it was the spectacular Army of Shadows and this year it’s the equally impressive Killer of Sheep. While Shadows was the result of a great director reaching the pinnacle of his art after a long career, Sheep is a student film and was actually never meant to be shown in theaters. It was made in 1977 by 33-year-old UCLA graduate student Charles Burnett (who went on to make several films, including The Glass Shield with Ice Cube and Lori Petty) and shot in 16MM over a series of weekends on hand-held cameras. Sheep does not have the polish of Shadows, but it is just as powerful.
Killer of Sheep is set in Watts about 10 years after the riots and spends a few days in the lives of several members of the American underclass. It centers on Stan, the title character, a sad-faced black man, who works in an abattoir. Stan carries out his terrible job and then you see him at home or with his friends and he is clearly sapped of his masculine energy. His wife tries to breathe it into him, a couple guys try to pull him into a money & murder plot, and a friend tries to cheer him up with a car ride to the country that ends up going nowhere – but Stan’s expression never changes even when the white Rubenesque owner of the local liquor store slyly offers herself to him in a swap of sex for dough. We see his children running around in the rail yard wrestling in the dirt and glass and throwing rocks at broken windows and the passing trains. It is a bleak life. If you enter the theater during these scenes, you may think the film is set in a Third World country, but it is Los Angeles, USA and it’s a place where a can of peaches is a great gift and a fifteen dollar car engine is a sign of freedom and hope.
Burnett’s minimalist style reminds you of Bresson or Ozu and perhaps he was forced into that style due to the lack of a budget, but he makes true art out of the plight of his characters. The camera is always in a perfect place. And his use of music (the rights of which has held up the film’s release for the past six years) would make even Scorsese jealous.
As hopeless as the situation described may seem, there is hope in this film. The characters, especially Stan’s wife, do not give up even when it seems like smarter people would and Burnett helps get this across by animating the film with his deft sense of humor.
This is an old school independent film which makes it a must see. And if you are interested in the history of the urban film, this film might be where it all started.
Killer of Sheep (80 minutes, new 35MM print) opens March 30th in New York City and then begins a tour of the country. Go to http://www.killerofsheep.com.