Out of the Past 

As much a rumor as a movie, Charles Burnett's masterpiece Killer of Sheep gets a new life.

In the three decades since Charles Burnett submitted the 80-minute, 16-millimeter, black-and-white Killer of Sheep as the thesis for his MFA in film at UCLA, it has seemed like more of a rumor than a movie.

A portrait of daily life in working-class-when-there's-work Watts, Killer of Sheep won the Critics' Award at the Berlin Film Festival in 1981 and received rapturous praise from many of the critics privileged to see it, but it never got the distribution it deserved. This obscurity derived in large part from legal problems resulting from Burnett's expansive pop-music soundtrack, the lack of rights for which has kept Killer of Sheep from being released on video or DVD. But even in the late '70s, black-and-white, 16-mm, and low-budget suggested art object more than commercial feature.

And so Killer of Sheep, despite being one of the first 50 films chosen for the Library of Congress' National Film Registry in 1990, has rarely been shown — relegated to occasional museum or reparatory screenings over the years. It was the masterpiece no one could see. Generally considered to rival Spike Lee as the greatest African-American filmmaker, Burnett has produced new work only intermittently in the years since, mostly with low-key theatrical releases (To Sleep With Anger, The Glass Shield) and TV movies (the highly regarded slavery film Nightjohn for the Disney Channel), becoming the master no one knew.

click to enlarge Scenes from South Central: Henry G. Sanders stars in Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep
  • Scenes from South Central: Henry G. Sanders stars in Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep

That changes this year, with a new 35-mm print restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive and legal problems with the soundtrack cleared up. Thirty years after Burnett finished the film, Killer of Sheep received its first New York theatrical run in March and is making its way around the country, screening twice this week at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art. For many serious cinephiles, this is much more of a film event than Spider-Man 3 or Shrek the Third.

Burnett was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1944, but he was raised in a neighborhood of other black Southern transplants in Los Angeles. He shot Killer of Sheep on weekends around his parents' Watts home on a $10,000 budget with a cast almost entirely composed of non-actors. As an example of American independent cinema in its homemade origins, it may be rivaled only by the likes of Kenneth Anger's Fireworks, John Cassavetes' Shadows, and David Lynch's Eraserhead.

Killer of Sheep's ostensible protagonist is Stan (Henry G. Sanders), who heads a household that includes a pretty wife (Kaycee Moore) and two young children. Stan works in a slaughterhouse (thus the film's title), where we see him herding sheep to their demise and hosing down the killing floor afterward. But it's a job, and Stan seems to be the only person in the film who has one.

click to enlarge p._50_film_one_review_2.jpg

Set in South Central Los Angeles approximately a decade after Watts burned and approximately a decade before the crack epidemic caused gang culture to explode, Killer of Sheep is really about the community Stan and his family inhabit. More an episodic ethnography than narrative drama, Killer of Sheep is a series of snapshots on the subject of social stasis.

In this world, children (much like in the Peanuts comic strip) exist largely in their own self-contained world and white people (there are two in the film) are on the margins. At the center is a network of African-American adults crushed by poverty, boredom, weariness, and feelings of helplessness leading to self-fulfilling haplessness (depicted most clearly, though far from exclusively, in a memorable bit of business concerning a second-hand car engine). Dreams haven't been deferred so much as defeated. In the era of blaxploitation, here was a depiction of contemporary African-American life that looked more like Italian neorealism and rejected the colorful, sometimes flattering, often exploitive trademarks of Hollywood films about the black experience.

So, though Killer of Sheep was a great film no one could see, it may have also been (and, sadly, may still be) a great film that few wanted to see. There's not much energy or false optimism here, but there is plenty of beauty and humor and truth.

My favorite moment — maybe, I think, one of my favorite moments in movies — is when Stan's 3-year-old daughter is sitting on the floor listening to the radio, clapping her hands, singing (really, warbling) to her doll. This is different from the way cute kid play is depicted in most films because the little girl (the girl, not just the character) clearly isn't trying to please anyone but herself. It feels less like an orchestrated bit presented to the film audience than a private moment glimpsed. When her mother comes out of the bathroom, peaks around the corner and smiles, parents in the audience are likely to get more pleasure and recognition out of these few seconds than out of a dozen Hollywood family films.

And many other small, almost incidental, moments may grab you: the mother checking her makeup in the pot lid over the stove; a man reaching through a nonexistent car windshield for a can of Schlitz sitting on the hood; two kids crying on the couch in the aftermath of a domestic dispute; bits of dialogue ("Man, I ain't poor. I give away things to the Salvation Army. You can't give nothing to the Salvation Army if you poor. We may not have a damn thing sometimes ...").

Burnett brings a viewpoint to this series of snapshots via the allegorical aspects of Stan's slaughterhouse job and his music choices — a survey of African-American pop music (with some classical music) that often comments on the action.

Some of the film's most provocative cross-cutting encourages a comparison of the sheep at Stan's job to the packs of kids playing on the streets and in the vacant lots of the neighborhood (set to Little Walter's "Mean Old World"). The film's most purely beautiful image is that of children leaping across a gap between two buildings, seen from directly below. There's an intoxicatingly carefree nature to the play in Killer of Sheep — tossing rocks at a passing train, making makeshift toys from neighborhood rubble. But there's also carelessness, a feeling of lives being neglected.

In its own way, Killer of Sheep is as much a blues movie as Black Snake Moan, maybe more of one — and as relevant to life in 2007 Memphis as it is to life in 1977 Watts.

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