Some people may find the story behind Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep more interesting than the film itself, which is probably too bad for them. Still, the backstory is pretty interesting. Writer-director Burnett (My Brother’s Wedding, To Sleep with Anger) filmed Killer of Sheep in stark black-and-white on weekends during 1972 and ’73, at a cost of something under $10,000 (mostly grant money), using friends and neighbors for his cast. The finished film served as his Master of Fine Arts thesis at the UCLA Film School in 1977. But it never received a general release because Burnett couldn’t afford to pay for rights to the wide range of music he used on his soundtrack, which included songs by George Gershwin, Dinah Washington, Etta James, Paul Robeson and Earth, Wind & Fire.
Despite its limited availability—and even that only on battered 16mm prints—the film built a following: It won a special prize at the 1981 Berlin Film Festival, was named to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 1990 and was chosen by the National Society of Film Critics as one of the 100 essential films of all time.
Now, thanks to the efforts of the UCLA Film and Television Archive (with a generous subsidy from Steven Soderbergh), Killer of Sheep is finally getting a general release. It has been restored in a 35mm version, its music finally licensed for use in the film (all except one song, Dinah Washington’s “Unforgettable”; the new version uses Washington’s “This Bitter Earth” instead).
After all that, audiences who finally see Killer of Sheep may wonder what all the fuss was about. So it’s important to understand what the movie isn’t. It’s not a conventional narrative with a beginning, middle and end. Though it takes place in the desolate poverty of L.A.’s Watts, it doesn’t morph into gritty urban melodrama; scenes of kids playing around an idle railroad boxcar, or of two shady characters coaxing a pal to join them in a criminal enterprise, may give a twinge of dread (or anticipation) about where things are headed—but that’s not Burnett’s game here. There’s no real story to speak of; many of the characters aren’t even named.
One who is named is Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), a slaughterhouse worker whose job is herding sheep to their deaths, then skinning and stripping their carcasses (hence the title). Stan has a wife (Kaycee Moore) and two kids, and while the family seems a loving one, it’s a dogged love, glimpsed more in the absence of anger than in positive affection. Stan’s job, and the family’s poverty, leave him spent and downcast, and almost—but, we sense, not quite—downhearted. The family, like their friends and neighbors, seems precariously balanced between misery, frustration and hope. Burnett’s images are grim but not dreary; these people, he tells us, will keep on. They won’t give up.
Killer of Sheep is a work of primitive art, and for some the word “primitive” may be a deal-breaker; some of the acting is uncertain, even awkward. But Burnett has a way of capturing images that tell us more than the actors may even know they’re showing: a little girl slumped against the kitchen doorjamb wearing a grotesquely comic gorilla mask, or Stan’s wife gazing at her husband slumped at the table in the next room, wondering where he’s gone this time. And Burnett’s spare dialogue (spare, perhaps, to avoid overtaxing his cast) has sidelong poetry to it, a sort of muttered, guttural haiku; as with the images, the words manage to convey more than the actors may know they are saying. (Some critics have compared the film to the Italian Neorealist films of the 1940s—Open City, The Bicycle Thief, etc.) True enough, but another comparison occurred to me: Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, in which the poet paints a patchwork portrait of an entire community through a series of discrete yet interlocking poetic vignettes, giving us a view of life in the midst of a graveyard.
If you want a clear-cut story, or laughs, or action, or suspense, you’d best stay away from Killer of Sheep; none of that here. But if you do go, be patient, and resist the urge to wonder “Is that all there is?” when it’s over. It’ll stay with you. You’ll see.