Combustible Celluloid
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With: Henry G. Sanders, Kaycee Moore, Charles Bracy, Angela Burnett, Eugene Cherry, Jack Drummond
Written by: Charles Burnett
Directed by: Charles Burnett
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 83
Date: 11/30/1979

Killer of Sheep (1977)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Lamb Sessions

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep (1977) has perhaps been more written about and appreciated than actually seen. By now there's no question that it belongs in the canon of greatest American movies. If this film had been more widely available, it would have a secure place not only as the greatest achievement in African-American cinema but also as one of the great achievements in cinema, period.

Burnett made the film for a reported $10,000 (mostly grant money) for his master's thesis at UCLA. Shot in black-and-white, Burnett deliberately evokes Italian Neo-Realist classics like Roberto Rossellini's Open City (1945) and Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves (1948) as well as John Cassavetes' Shadows (1959). The film is set near Watts in a ramshackle, all-black neighborhood. Stan (Henry G. Sanders) works in a slaughterhouse and can't shake his melancholy mood when he's at home. He can't sleep and tries to articulate his feelings to his friends and neighbors -- such as trying to appreciate the feel of a coffee cup against his cheek -- but no one understands him. As an intelligent, sensitive artist, Burnett must have experienced this feeling more than once during his lifetime.

Killer of Sheep contains no real plot, although the lack of money and a vague threat of extinction constantly hover around the frame. In one scene, two thugs show up at Stan's house and ask him to join them on a murder plot; he won't have to kill anyone, but he'll be paid. Stan, followed by his wife (Kaycee Moore), angrily rebukes them. Later, Stan and a pal decide to buy a used motor from a slightly sleazy neighborhood man, and they apparently use up a good portion of Stan's paycheck to do so. But everything goes south when the motor falls from the back of a truck and cracks on the pavement. In a third section, Stan and a group of friends excitedly head off for a day trip to the country and/or the racetrack when a flat tire forces them to turn around and head home.

In-between, Burnett concentrates on moments and images. In one memorable scene, Stan and his wife -- we never learn her name -- slow dance for several minutes in silhouette in front of a window. Their touch is loving and relaxed, but the song Burnett has chosen, Dinah Washington's heartbreaking "This Bitter Earth," casts a different tone on things. Children provide a good number of these in-between moments, or what Ozu termed "pillow shots." In one scene, a young boy witnesses two men climbing over a fence with a television set. In other scenes, a girl wears a rubber dog mask (a striking image) and children play in rubble-strewn vacant lots, stacking bricks and playing with abandoned building materials instead of things like basketballs or jump ropes.

Occasionally, Burnett shows Stan at work, herding or counting sheep (a reference to his insomnia?) or dealing with amputated animal parts. We never hear the metallic grind of the slaughterhouse; Burnett always drops the sound and uses a song instead. Even more startling, however, is the fact that Burnett constantly crosses these slaughterhouse scenes with the images of playing children. Are these children the equivalent of sheep that will be herded into a predetermined future of nothingness? It's a bleak, bleak thing to do. But Burnett is also aware that, where there are children, there is always at least a bit of hope. One of the happier images in the film shows Stan enjoying a backrub from his daughter, and the film ends with the news that one of Stan's neighbor's is expecting a baby.

The real miracle of Killer of Sheep is that it's a non-exploitative view of African-American life; it assumes that viewers will have the patience, grace and intelligence to see it as it is. Burnett never panders to audience expectations the way that his contemporaries Melvin Van Peebles (Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song) and Gordon Parks (Shaft) were forced to.

And now that the problem of song rights has been resolved, people can finally see it. Burnett had included a selection of music in the film ranging from Dinah Washington to Paul Robeson, without securing the rights. Thirty years later, all of these issues have been cleared up and UCLA has struck a new, 35mm print to be officially released in U.S. theaters for the first time.

Note: As great as the theatrical release was, Milestone's new DVD is even more exciting. It's a two-disc set packed with even more rare Burnett films, including his 1994 short When It Rains, which Jonathan Rosenbaum chose as one of his all-time favorite films. It's a beautiful, 13-minute work, pulsing with jazz and life; it's set on New Year's Day, and is about a man trying to help a friend come up with rent. Burnett's feature film My Brother's Wedding is also here, in a longer 1983 cut that went unreleased, and in a new, tighter director's cut. There are other short films, commentary tracks, trailers and liner notes by the great crackpot film critic Armond White. This was one 2007's most essential DVDs.

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