A black-and-white movie about the bleakness of life in Watts, California—shot for $10,000 about 30 years ago and never intended for theaters—doesn't exactly fit the Hollywood formula. But Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep is a treasure of American cinema.
Made by Burnett in 1977 as part of his UCLA thesis project, the movie breaks molds in its narrative and visual style and in its vision of dignity amid suffering. The movie portrays a slice of life in Los Angeles not long after the Watts riots of the mid-1960s. The story centers on Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), an African-American laborer whose job in a slaughterhouse barely supports his family.
Instead of a conventional cinematic narrative, with scenes contrived to dramatize the protagonist's fictional "journey," the movie presents vignettes of Stan's work, family life, and neighborhood. At the meat plant, workers flay slaughtered animals whose carcasses sway on meat hooks to the film's jazz sound track. At home, Stan's wife (Kaycee Moore) stirs a pan on the stove, looking at her reflection in the lid that doesn't quite fit. Outside, neighborhood boys battle each other with make-do shields and mischievously pelt fresh laundry with dirt.
With its low wages and ugly conditions, Stan's job appears to diminish his desire for intimacy. At one point, Stan and his wife dance alone in the living room, her hands resting on his shirtless body. But Stan pulls away. Later, she reminds Stan tomorrow is Saturday and invites him to bed early. Again, he declines; a close-up reveals his wife's tears.
Despite the hard work and low pay, Stan refuses moral shortcuts. When friends offer quick money in exchange for help with a crime, he says no. Later, he declines when a female liquor store owner urges him to quit his job and join her, seductively laying her hand on his.
FOR BURNETT, STAN is a study in perseverance, a working person whose moral compass offers guidance even in unjust and oppressive circumstances. "He knows right from wrong," Burnett said after a June screening in Tennessee. Though Stan "was slowly being crushed by his context, he was enduring it," the director said.
Killer of Sheep is one example of Burnett's strong moral vision. His films—including To Sleep with Anger, which starred Danny Glover—present social realities and then call people to question how they can address the suffering they see. "I don't think I'm capable of answering problems that have been here for many years," Burnett writes on his Web site. "But I think the best I can do is present them in a way where one wants to solve these problems."
Stan's dignity in the face of despair also contrasts with the "blaxploitation" movies of the same period. Those films presented an "individualistic, materialistic ethos, as typified by the pimps, drug pushers, call girls, and the shysters in the street," Frank Dobson told Sojourners. Dobson is director of the Bishop Joseph Johnson Black Cultural Center at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. While the blaxploitation genre presented one response to the desperation, Dobson said, Stan offers another.
Given its theme of endurance, Killer of Sheep shows how the medium can mirror the message. Because of the high cost of clearing music rights, Burnett's film was shown only at festivals and in universities for decades before its recent release in select theaters.
Now the film is included in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry, along with other key works of American cinema, and will be released on DVD in November.
Ted Parks writes from Nashville, Tennessee, where he also teaches Spanish at Lipscomb University.