JWR Articles: Film/DVD - Killer of Sheep (Director/Writer: Charles Burnett) - May 9, 2008
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Killer of Sheep

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5 5
83 min.

Black Like We

Charles Burnett’s UCLA thesis has as much, or possibly more—given the malaise of inner-city youth in far more places than just Los Angeles—to say about despair, power and find-a-little-joy-where-you-can three decades after its original incarnation.

Now, thanks to his alma mater’s decision to preserve the original 16mm black-and-white negative, the world can watch in shock and awe as Stan (Henry G. Sanders) stoically lives through his perpetually exhausted life on earth.

Married with two kids (played by Jack Drummond, Stan Jr., a.k.a. “Killer” is arrogant, lippy and oddly debonair, wearing his Afro with pride and making mischief 24/7; Angela Burnett as the very young daughter captures all of dad’s love much to the chagrin of a mother/wife who can’t make her man smile anymore in or out of the bedroom), Stan spends his days herding unsuspecting sheep into pens of death before skinning them bare and—curiously evoking the story of Salomé—scooping out the cranial “delicacies” once the decapitated heads have been skewered on trophy pins.

Writer/director Burnett pulls no punches and most certainly lands more than a few. The cruelty of neighbourhood gangs ranges from beatings to stonings to tossing dirt on freshly hung wash: anything that moves must be sassed or struck—even the girls deliver their share of physical abuse.

Surprisingly (or is this just another example of the success of mainstream blaxploitation stereotyping) religion is largely absent. Still, forever-tired Stan eschews the “Why don’t you kill yourself?” suggestion from a friend to once and for all cure his “no peace of mind.” Soon, amongst other choices, he decides against becoming the “third” (no possibility of murder, just a few behind-the-crime activities) when a pair of his leather-clad “brothers” attempt to recruit him for a “job.” For their efforts, they are verbally pummeled by Stan’s woman (Kaycee Moore the pick of the acting crop): “Why you always wanna hurt someone?” she demands. “[Because] … a man has fists,” the says-it-all reply.

Check your local news daily to see that notion of we-fight-because-we-can continues unabated. “Nothing-ass niggers” indeed. But this is not confined to one race: more subliminally, but just as deadly, that mantra is also never far beneath the surface when nations feel like flexing their political muscles.

Like John Steinbeck’s Mac and the boys, the storyline features many scenes of the best-laid plans being pathetically dashed. A secondhand automobile motor is purchased for $15 en route to creating a 2-vehicle family (the ownership of which will demonstrate to all how “I ain’t poor.”). Once the deal is done, it has to be hauled down rickety steps and heaved into a long-serving pickup. But the tailgate isn’t latched, causing the just-acquired status symbol to plummet and smash irreparably on the pavement as the proud owners begin to drive off with their prize.

Later, the heady excitement of a day at the track to wager a significant sum on a sure thing has the wind sucked out of its sails due to a flat tire. “I always told you to have a spare” becomes just another miserable put down to the luckless driver in the wake of yet another opportunity lost.

Burnett’s savvy use of music lifts this already compelling essay into the realm of the gods. From music box innocence (“I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy”) to lyrics that fill in the blanks as to the current state of discontent (“What’s America to Me?”; “This Bitter Earth”; “Going Home”) to Louis Armstrong’s “West End Blues” (heard during the truncated trip to the ponies) to Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 4 (its rich, romantic soundscape ironically captures a lover’s devastation when Stan shuns the offer of sex), the film’s points are driven home with incredible power as the visual elements merge with the aural. The combined effect is so strong that precious little dialogue is required, leaving the metaphorical waters pristine and clear for all of those who care to look beneath the surface.

Marvellously, the film concludes with a near-simultaneous celebration of the promise of new life, even as another lot of purpose-raised animals are pushed and prodded into an overcrowded cell where their wretched existence will soon come to a deadly conclusion, having been born innocent but never allowed to sip from the cup of freedom. JWR

Bonus features

Also included on the DVD are three Burnett short films.

Several Friends (1969) is the grainy prequel to the Killer of Sheep, notable for another tired hero (Andy, Andy Burnett) and a couple of pals who are forced to forego a white-women trolling excursion to Hollywood because they can’t quite figure out how to move a washing machine from one room to another.

A fascinating mini-study of shoes (human and animal) and an aura of death row give The Horse (1973) some engaging balance even as the young black boy (Maury Wright) prepares the way for the, apparently, necessary culling of his best four-legged friend. (Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 provides the musical bookends—it’s especially apt for the opening long shots.)

Juno Lewis and his twin-bell trumpet steals the show and solves the rent-day dilemma in the aptly titled When it Rains—the drum ensemble ushering in the New Year’s Day festivities is superb. JWR

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