Killer of Sheep (1978)

January 15th, 2023
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir: Charles Burnett | US Drama, 80′

Charles Burnett was the daddy of African American cinema, an elder statesman who trailblazed the way forward and influenced many upcoming filmmakers shining a light on Black America and the Deep South where he was born in Mississippi in 1944.

Seven years in the making Killer of Sheep is a gentle, lyrical portrait of a working-class black family living the poverty stricken Watts area of Los Angeles, which was shot for his Masters at UCLA but somehow found its way out winning the FIPRESCI prize at Berlinale in 1981.

Now this elegantly composed film has been restored in gleaming black and white. Burnett wrote the script and acted as his own producer and DoP originally shooting on 16-mms camera himself, and splicing vignettes of family life with equally poignant ones in a sheep abattoir, where the father works in the grim task of killing sheep. And although Stan (Henry G Sanders) is happy with his loving wife (Kaycee Moore), this film is a tender reflection on how a father’s discontent with his job can slowly depress the whole family. Burnett’s daughter is enchanting in the role of their little girl. The moody score is a sublime refection of the times. In one scene she is pictured playing with her toys while innocently singing the words to Philip Bailey’s love song ‘Reasons’ (it was later covered by Earth Wind & Fire). And Burnett’s sympathy for children and animals is reflected in the poetic and peaceful pictures which are also visually striking.

There is no dramatic tension as such, rather, a playing out of various episodes in family life where friends and family also come and go in a laidback breezy way in despite the claustrophobic homes and desolate scenery. Although there is clearly unhappiness there is also a certain philosophical status quo and a pleasing nonchalance to this tale of everyday life that feels natural thanks to a cast of non-pro actors. MT


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