|Cast:||Henry G. Sanders, Kaycee Moore, Charles Bracy, Angela Burnett, Eugene Cherry, Jack Drummond|
During the years Charles Burnett was working on his masters degree at UCLA, he became a teacher’s assistant to Elyseo Taylor, who founded the Ethno-Communications department at the university to urge minorities to tell stories about their own communities. Burnett’s masters thesis Killer of Sheep is testament to how startling it is to see a film which isn’t boxed into the detached and delusional notions of what the rich white men who determine what films are made and distributed believe is a realistic depiction of a black community. In other words, Burnett has actually made a movie about the hood that isn’t sold on crime, gang violence, drugs, pimps, ho’s, cussing, and sex. The results are quite simply stunning; are unfamiliarity with these characters, scenes, and experiences shocks us, marking Killer of Sheep as an original work that seems to truly share the black ghetto communal experience for the first time.
There’s nothing flashy or sensational about ghetto life in Charles Burnett’s Blaxsploitation riposte; even if the community itself is vibrant enough to have a certain charm, impoverished life is a grind that’s horrifying. Rescuing black films from the unrealistic commercial cliches and didactic and stereotypical polemics on “black issues”, Burnett has produced an actual alternative to the cinema of false empowerment or of an action that ultimately breeds complacency when it fails to solve the problems. Charles Burnett not only created a time capsule of 1970’s ghetto life with Killer of Sheep, he transformed the viewer’s perceptions of inner city black culture by presenting a humane and poetic evocation of his community. Rather than perpetuate the myths, Burnett’s camera is a peaceful, objective observer of everyday life, sensitively and respectfully presenting the minutia at its most undramatic.
The main character Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders) is a family man who has no energy for them. No suave Superfly hero, Stan is more similar to flatfly; he’s such a ladies man he’s not even capable of satisfying his (unnamed) wife (Kaycee Moore) despite his desire to do so if he wasn’t so sluggish. People who don’t have the responsibility of working are much better at making the best of things and maintaining a sunny disposition than Stan, though their liveliness and boredom still often results in petty squabbles.
Stan seems to be about the only person who actually does work, so it’s his responsibility, perhaps duty, to maintain his mind numbing job at the slaughterhouse, if only for the benefit of those who rely upon him. Burnett refuses to take the easy rode and present the abattoir as the root of all evil, as that would play into the foolish notion all his problems could be solved by either correcting the current job (union power) or finding a different one. Though lack of money is everyone’s biggest problem, Stan’s job is typically both a positive and negative, and never the centerpiece. Stan knows he’s lucky to have a job at all even though it’s deadened him, but the focus of the movie is instead on his unsatisfying idle time. We see a breezy whimsical montage of Stan at work, but are still smart enough to sense his dissatisfaction through the subtle ways his distaste for the slaughterhouse bleeds into, if not dominates, his family life.
Stan loves his family and would go down trying to support them, but he’s not going to suddenly become a lawyer. What’s he has the ability to do is maintain the standard, which as low as it may be is working for a living. The slave wages necessitate a life of poverty, but his lot in life is to do what’s in his power, preserve the subsistence living he’s allowed to eke out. The path to maintain the value is paved with acceptance and endurance. Though Stan is steadfast, if anything his willpower makes things more difficult, as he has to continually struggle to find reasons to maintain the consistent stance the rest of the screw ups find perplexing.
Stan rebukes the hoods who offer him money to take a non-violent part in a hit because it goes against his code. Even though he’d rather be poor than a crook, he refuses to accept the fact he already is indigent. At one point he tries to prove he’s middle class by pointing out that he gives things to the Salvation Army, including the disclaimer “We may not have a damn thing sometimes”. What Barnett is showing is everyone believes they are middle class as long as they can point to someone worse off, and Stan knows Walter, a man who eats “nothing but wild greens picked out of a vacant lot”. In order to prove he’s not destitute, Stan works up the nerve to spend most of his paycheck on a used (stolen?) engine in an attempt to get his car on the road. It winds up falling out of the back of the truck they are attempting to hall it in, an example of how hope is so easily dashed, forcing you to shift to an alternate way to rescue your spirits.
The lack of means to attain goods renders violence alluring, but there’s no heroism in Stan fighting the urge to pillage and plunder. The temptation of crime is always there because the institutionalized racism doesn’t allow working class life in the slums to provide a standard of living above subsistence and survival. Mean spiritedness seems innate to depravation, whether it be kids tossing dirt on freshly hung clothes or adults responding to the need for money with a “go rob a liquor store like everyone else” sort of scoffing retort.
Stan is not so much alienated by his attempted acceptance of deprivation as an alien, struggling to articulate his feelings to those who avoid such subjects. Among the many humorous scenes, Stan uses a steaming hot cup of coffee to evoke the metaphor of the feeling of his wife’s forehead during sex. Finding these sort of positives give him a reason to go on, but verbalizing them simply elicits the mocking rebuff from Bracy (Charles Bracy), “I don’t go for women with malaria!”
A mix of sweet and rueful humor, Killer of Sheep could be described as the folly of being forced to muddle through an insurmountable cesspool. Life is a constant battle between desire and denial in their many forms, with Stan perhaps learning a lesson of acceptance through a series of scenes where we can see his foolishness but can’t really blame him for it because he’s striving to maintain his pride and dignity.
Though regularly compared to Italian neorealism due to aspects such as the low budget black and white documentary aesthetic with location shooting amidst the ruins, the use of non-professional actors, and the desire to compassionately tell human stories, it’s perhaps more important to consider the astounding differences. Charles Burnett’s first feature lacks the usual noble and sentimental underpinnings associated with neorealism, particularly the Vittorio De Sica variety. He also isn’t one of those privileged white men who bring the plight of the disenfranchised to the masses because he pities them; he is these people and they are him. Moving to Los Angeles from the South, in his case Mississippi as a very young boy, was a common occurrence for African Americans of his generation, and Burnett has cast Killer of Sheep with his friends and relatives, admittedly typecast. In addition to Killer of Sheep, Burnett’s next two films My Brother’s Wedding and To Sleep With Anger were also set in the Watts ghetto he was so familiar with, and his subsequent good albeit far more commercial police thriller The Glass Shield is still set in Los Angeles. If there’s a primary reason Killer of Sheep isn’t one of those grim, relentlessly downbeat films it’s perhaps that even amidst the worst circumstances people such as Barnett can rise above their surroundings and earn a chance to do something with their lives.
The commercially released songs used without authorization may have landed the film in distribution purgatory for 30 years, ranking it alongside Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising as two of the most difficult highly regarded US made cult classics to actually see in North America, but the blues and Negro Spirituals are so crucial to the films theme and tone of coping with what one must deal with the film couldn’t be released without them. Thankfully Milestone Video forked over $150,000 in rights fees, an astronomical number considering Burnett made the entire film for less than $10,000.
The songs are sometimes used for ironic counterpoint, for instance the lyrics of “The House I Live In”, a Paul Robeson standard say “The children on the playground, the faces that I see, all races and religions, that’s America to me” but we only see black kids, and they are sitting on the park wall throwing stones because there’s little else one can do in such a dirt patch. Making the best of things, going on in spite of your lot in life is the best one can do. That’s why Stan is the man, even if one of the least heroic stars in all of film. Burnett shows us filmmaking is not about distracting the audience from the suckiness of life with the usual sugar coating or simply hammering home how much it sucks to placate the cynical audience through finding someone who is willing to tell their truth, but rather dealing with the fact in order to keep it from grinding you into the dirt. Life is a kind of spiritual quest to keep your chin up in spite of your knowledge things may well be as good as they’ll ever get. Rather than struggling to ignore the truth, the challenge of life isn’t happiness through willful ignorance but rather unsparing reality. It’s only when you accept the worst you can begin to discover the beauty that is actually present in your life.
Bereft of plot or any sort of conventional narrative, Burnett presents a mosaic of ghetto life. His episodic movie alternates between the difficulties his lethargic and glum main character experiences and scenes of neighborhood. The vitality of the neighborhood is stunningly captured, and even if the non-professionals very obviously read a line now and then, their demeanor and body language adds a considerable amount of texture.
The ramshackle neighborhood is a lively badlands. Lacking anything new or even kept up, the hood is reminiscent of a battlefield even though no bombs have been dropped. Most of the neighborhood scenes involve children. Growing up in this quarter they are forced to playing wherever than can with whatever they can find, so to an extent the kids are violent because their toys are rocks and dirt. We see how their innocent games mirror their potential downfall, imagining in 15 years their bounding across rooftops will be a method of escape. But through the choice of activities depicted we subliminally understand how the adults teach the children their ways without trying. Desperation breeds cruelty and violence, but on the other hand generosity, as when you can’t simply pay someone for whatever you need you are forced to rely on the good will of others.