Killer of Sheep: Charles Burnett’s Masterpiece

The first black director to leave his mark on the new American independent cinema was the visionary Charles Burnett. To this day, however, he has not received the recognition he deserves, possibly due to the low-key, understated manner of his work–and his humble personality.

Burnett made his feature debut around 1973 with “Killer of Sheep,” but it took 4 years before it was shown publicly. “Killer of Sheep” is one of the few films by black filmmakers (the others are “The Learning Tree” and “She’s Gotta Have It”) to be recognized as worthy of preservation by the Congress National Film Registry Act.

Burnett may have been the first director to draw his inspiration directly from the black neighborhoods of L.A. Burnett has criticized Hollywood for suppressing creativity, what with studios’ eternal concern with the bottom line, which results in an inevitable split between the director’s vision and box-office reality. “People would in the most helpful way ask me why I didn’t make something more commercial,” Burnett recalled. “But I just knew that what I was doing was a different ball game. It’s not the same market. If you don’t realize those differences, you go crazy.”

Burnett claims the studios project an image of what they are not, liberal institutions. In actuality, not many people of color are involved in the decision-making. Women are not represented, because there’s a lot of hostility toward them in the business. Burnett believes that “if you get women filmmakers, you would get a different perspective.” The same applies to black filmmakers who have “distinctive stories” to tell with “new dimensions” to show.

For Burnett, most studio films perpetuate racism, manifestly or latently, because they are not interested in depicting black life realistically. American films have create and perpetuated stereotypes about black people, since they tend to appear in action-packed dramas about drugs. Mainstream producers don’t even try to get a black director to do a serious black-theme movie. This means, that it’s up to black directors to shake things up, be aggressive and take initiative. Concerned with the studios’ control over the imagery of blacks, Burnett claims that “only a black director can lend ‘something special’ to a black theme.” Spike Lee would make the same claim a decade later.

Comprising a virtually one-man crew, Burnett, produced, directed, wrote, and shot “Killer of Sheep” over weekends for a whole year with some friend and peers from UCLA. The film, which was shown at the Whitney Museum in 1978 and at Toronto in 1981, draws strength from its sharp observations of a poverty-row black family.

The drama’s protagonist, Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), a remote, rather depressed man, works in a slaughter house (hence the title), but dreams of a better job, though his possibilities are understandbly limited.

When Stan’s son (Jack Drummond) continues to tease his sister (Angela Burnett), he chases the boy out of the house.

Stan’s wife (Kaycee Moore), bored and sexually frustrated, tries to talk to him about his lethargy, melancholy and depression. After sharing a romantic dance in their living room, she inities sexual intimacy, but he remains unresponsive and leaves her unhappily alone.

Then two of his friends try to talk him into joining them in a murder plot, but he refuses; his wife, who has overheard the talk, berates them.

Stan and his friend Eugene (Eugene Cherry) visit a man who has an old car motor for sale, but shortly after buying the vehicle, it falls out of the back of Eugene’s pickup and is ruined.

The movie offers illuminating glimpses of Stan’s monotonous life that are punctuated by cuts to the slaughterhouse.

Burnett has said that he tried “to recreate a situation without reducing life to a simple plot,” and indeed, narratively spekaing the movie is plotless—by standards of mainstream cinema.

Photographed in a spare black and white, the film is was criticized (unfairly, I think) by some reviewers as being too studied; they claimed that that Stan’s alienation and self-estrangement are further accentuated by the director’s own detachment.

The dialogue is spoken with either insufficient or excessive emphasis by the largely amateur actors. But the film’s emotional power is based on Burnett’s keen eye for life’s tiny moments, which he presents in an austere yet poetic manner; once again, mainstream critics who disliked the film complained that the picture is too barren–and dull.

Fortunately, history has vindicated Burnett: Though it’s a first work, “Killer of Sheep” is considered by many film critics to be his undisputed masterpiece, a truly independent film in approach, subjet, and style that’s artistically ambitiois and invcentively conceived.

Though made decades ago, in many ways, “Killer of Sheep” is prophetic in its depiction the anxieties and fears of members of the inner-city black community. That it does so with indelible poetic imagery is all the more impressive considering the low-budget (around $10,000) and conditions of production.