Killer of Sheep (1977)

Reid, 20. December 2007, 11:41

Dir. Charles Burnett
Starring: Henry G. Sanders, Kaycee Moore
8/10
86 minutes

This is one of those films I never heard of before reading 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. I don’t know if it’s something you must see, but I’m not going to argue too strongly. This is a unique film on what I consider a well-worn subject–or at least I’m not very interested. My rating reflects more of my objective assessment of the film, rather than my enjoyment. (More later.) I think the film is definitely worth watching for people who are open to non-mainstream films. (You know who you are.) Out of everyone I would recommend this film the most strongly to Kevin, as if nothing else the approach and visuals of the film would really appeal to him. Next, I would be the fairly confident that Penny would be glad to have seen this (probably Grace, too, although I don’t know how much she’d enjoy it.)

**
The film is about an African-American family and the lower-class environment that they live in. Basically, we’re talking a ghetto film, but one superior to anything else like it (at least in terms of the artistry). Think of the TV show Good Times, with a more sublime aesthetic–both in the simple mundane situations as well as the composition, cinematography (black and white) and editing. The other films that come to mind are John Cassavetes’ Shadows–for its humanity and realism of its African-American characters–and Luis Bunuel’s Los Olividados for its realistic and more subdued version (in contrast to films like City of God or Boyz in the Hood which are more blatantly brutal and dramatic) of life of poverty. This is a must for viewers interested in African-American films (so much better than anything I’ve seen by Spike Lee) or ghetto life.

***
In many ways the characters, situation and community are cliches. We see the crime, the squalid dwellings, depressed environment, limited economic opportunities, but what sets this film apart is the artistry in this film. Let me expand on that.

First, Burnett chooses to focus on mundane situations. We don’t see dramatic displays of violence or emotions, nor is there a strong dramatic narrative that pulls every thing together. The film has a more slice-of-life, cinema verite sensibility. But it’s precisely the simplicity and quiet nature of many of the scenes that give the film its artistic power. The one that comes stands out for me is the final scene with Stan and his wife sitting on the couch. With small gestures and subtle facial expressions (Stan expressing physical affection and hint of happiness that was absent throughout the entire film), Burnett is able to convey a sense of optimism in a way that’s believeable and not cheesy. It’s the quietness and subtlety that make it work. A more dramatic display of emotions may have awakened the audience’s skepticism. In addition, since the filmmakers don’t employ a dramatic narrative to justify the ending, leaving a possible source of cynicism out. (There are filmmakers that are skilled at doing that. I think of Kore-eda, Michael Haneke, Ki-duk Kim, Lynne Littman’s Testament and strangely enough Hsiao-hsien Huo–the director of the film Three Lives, a film with a very similar, albeit more austere approach, that I recently watched.)

What’s refreshing is the way Burnett is able to convey the nature of the African-American experience without being preachy or heavy-handed. The characters maintain their humanity and avoid being cardboard characters we so often see in this film.

Second, I think the compositions, cinematography, editing and use of music give this film an artistry often lacking in other films of the same type. I like the scene where Stan and his wife are slow dancing in the dark. There is light coming in from the outside window and as they slowly turn, Stan’s wife moves closer; we only see glimpses of her facial expressions in shadows, but we see her yearning in her arms slowly caressing and pulling her toward her. Stan continues dancing a wooden fashion. He’s a man worn out–both physically and spiritually. Burnett uses Dinah Washington’s, “This Bitter Earth” as an effective complement. Burnett uses the song again at the end with a more positive spin.

This may be the best film I’ve seen on African-American experience–certainly one of the most successfullly artistic.

7 Responses to “Killer of Sheep (1977)”


  1. Arlyn

    Reid,

    Thanks for the recommendation. This is a beautiful movie for so many reasons. First of all, the director did an exceptional job of documenting Los Angeles, specifically, Watts. I’ve taken the blue line metro rail there to visit the Watts Towers and Museum. I’d suggest visiting Watts for anyone into exploring places off the beaten path.

    The music, pacing, photography, dialogue and genuineness of the actors are really inspiring. I’m still a little dizzy from watching this.

    I agree what you said about the mundane day-to-day scenes. Memorable for me is the scene between Stan and his friend having tea in the kitchen.

    I’m really bummed that I missed a screening last November at UCLA, director Charles Burnett’s alma mater.
    http://www.cinema.ucla.edu/events/2011-11-05/killer-sheep-1977

    Mitchell, have you seen this?

    If not, Reid, do you think he’d like this film?

  2. Reid

    I’m glad you liked the film. Man, it’s too bad you missed the screening. I would have loved to have gone to that! What did you think about my comments about Spike Lee? Also, if you liked this, have you seen David Gordon Green’s George Washington? It’s similar (more focused on the kids, so that might appeal to you), but I prefer KoS.

    I think Mitchell will appreciate the film, but my guess is that he’d have to be in the mood to really enjoy it. It has a slower, documentary quality, while not having a page-turning narrative.

    I vaguely remember the scene with Stan and his friend, but it’s been a while since I’ve seen it. It’d be great if criterion put out a dvd/blu-ray of this film.

  3. Arlyn

    What? You don’t remember two tough guys discussing tough guy stuff, drinking tea out of dainty tea cups with their pinkies up?! I just saw it last night so it’s still fresh. 🙂

  4. Reid

    They did not have their pinkies up! 😉

  5. Arlyn

    Are you certain of this? 🙂

    Going back to the tea scene…The ritual of having tea with friends is poetic enough but the way Burnett wrote this scene impressed me. I thought that Stan, who works at a slaughter house, was so sentimental when he compared the warmth of a tea cup (held to his cheek) to the warmth a woman’s face.

    As for Spike Lee, I can’t recall a film to compare Killer of Sheep to. I haven’t seen all of his films. Red Hook Summer looks interesting.

    I do agree with what you said about Singleton’s Boyz being brutal and dramatic but it was a different time in Los Angeles. 20 years would make a difference.

    KoS is truly a special film. It stands out, almost 30 years later. Btw, I read it was filmed in 1972 and 1973 even though it was “released” in 1977 as his MFA thesis. His thesis?! Wow.

  6. Arlyn

    I liked how you compared Haneke and Kore-eda in their similar approach. I see that.

  7. Reid

    Going back to the tea scene…The ritual of having tea with friends is poetic enough but the way Burnett wrote this scene impressed me. I thought that Stan, who works at a slaughter house, was so sentimental when he compared the warmth of a tea cup (held to his cheek) to the warmth a woman’s face.

    I vaguely remember the scene, but this makes me want to watch it again.

    As for Spike Lee, I can’t recall a film to compare Killer of Sheep to. I haven’t seen all of his films. Red Hook Summer looks interesting.

    Many of his films seems like they’re trying to educate audiences about the African-American experience or African-American related issues–but in a really heavy-handed way. Killer of Sheep brings that world to the viewers, too, but in a more subtle and artistically sophisticated way, imo. (Lee seems talented, too, but I think the artistry in KoS is superior to any of Lee’s films.)

    I do agree with what you said about Singleton’s Boyz being brutal and dramatic but it was a different time in Los Angeles. 20 years would make a difference.

    Perhaps. But I suspect the community depicted in the film experienced its share of violence and drama as well. I guess I’m tired of “ghetto” movies, and I appreciated the different tack this film took.

    His thesis?! Wow.

    Totally agree.

    I liked how you compared Haneke and Kore-eda in their similar approach. I see that.

    Thanks. I’m curious to see if I would feel the same way now.

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