Killer of Sheep
With its truthful depiction of racial issues in 1970s America, Charles Burnett's long-lost indie trailblazer is the perfect primer for BFI Black Star
Charles Burnett’s 1977 classic Killer of Sheep is a great way to kick off the BFI season of Black Star, a celebration of black actors with a particular focus on trailblazing performers. Made for $10,000 on grainy 16mm as a thesis project of UCLA film school, the film remains influential as one of the first serious depictions of working class black life.
Killer of Sheep does not have a traditional plot, opting instead to show the daily grind of its characters, moments of happiness and sadness, excitement and boredom without any apparent narrative throughline. While this may seem like a difficult and depressing experience, the film is much more open than that. Although it does tackle difficult subjects such as poverty and the dehumanising effects of factory work, the intention is not to give the audience to hard time.
Stan (played by Henry Gayle Sanders), the closest thing to a main character, is a man keeping himself and his family just above the poverty line with a job in the local slaughterhouse. His repetitive and soul-destroying work has left him unable to sleep at night and he wonders through life almost in a daze, trying to find things to take heart in. There is also an equal focus given to his two children and his friends, painting a portrait of the many different ways to get by in 1970s Los Angeles.
Killer of Sheep brings a poetry and a realism to its depiction of life in the Watts area of Los Angeles, feeling like an American synthesis of the Italian neo-realism films of the 1940s and 1950s, particularly those of Vittorio de Sica and Roberto Rossellini and the BFI-funded work of Terence Davies and Bill Douglas of the 1970s.
The film presents people without direction in a series of largely unconnected vignettes, which offer little in the way of plotting or character development. Many simply detail the aimlessness of the characters' lives, while others are more poetic and symbolic. The images taken from a real local slaughterhouse are horrible and kept to a minimum, but they do lend a strong metaphorical weight, creating a palpable sense of entrapment and foreboding.
Burnett tackles the social issues of the day, but refuses to trivialise these problems with clear-cut answers like a more conventional Hollywood filmmaker would. This gives his film a refreshing sense of honesty and integrity.
That said, Killer of Sheep and its director are not so po-faced as to say that there is nothing to be enjoyed in life, as the film, despite its themes, has a remarkably light and poignant touch. It is often funny, with the characters bantering and arguing and the children getting up to all sorts of dangerous and ill-advised games.
As much as it was intended to be a portrait of a time and a place (in fact, it was never intended to be released theatrically, but only shown to those from the neighbourhood it depicts who were interested in seeing it), it is also a celebration of African-American music with performances from Louis Armstrong and Dinah Washington amongst others. The music helps tie the film together, adding a vibrancy to the largely quotidian imagery and recalling another great largely plotless, soundtrack driven American film from the 1970s, Scorsese’s portrait of his own neighbourhood Mean Streets.
Part of the reason Killer of Sheep disappeared for thirty years was due to the fact that Burnett had not got the rights to any of the songs used in the film, which meant that it could not be legally screened.
But one of its key innovations, and why it makes such a good primer for the rest of the Black Star season, is that it is one of the earliest examples of African-American independent cinema. Before the 1970s, black cinema was rare and was largely made up of genre films which largely avoided or infantilised racial issues in America, all with the acquiescence of a white-dominated Hollywood studio. Anyone who has seen the last five minutes of Spike Lee’s brilliant, edgy satire Bamboozled will know just how damaging representations of African Americans used to be.
Killer of Sheep is, then, an example of African Americans representing themselves, rather than allowing themselves to be represented, creating a truthful depiction of what it is like to be black in America. In this way, Killer of Sheep is a vital forerunner to the films of the ‘New Black Wave’ such as Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing and John Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood as well as equally important recent work such as Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station and Justin Simien’s Dear White People.
This film is ultimately about people trying to get by and though it made great strides towards creating accurate and respectful representations of African Americans, there is something universal and still relevant in its focus on the working class and the dehumanising effects of a depressed and mechanised world. In this way, it speaks to all of us.
Black Star runs throughout November and December with more screenings presented by Belfast Film Festival as well as Queen's Film Theatre, Banterflix and the Nerve Centre. For the full list of events visit www.filmhubni.org/Whats-on/Black-Star.