A husband and wife dancing slowly to Dinah Washington’s This Bitter Earth. The temptation of achieving security through crime. A dirt clod war between teenage boys in an abandoned construction site. The fear that one has failed as a man. The washing away of sheep blood. The hope of a transcendent moment. A bicycle spinning down the street carrying three young smiling boys.
Poverty. Dysfunction. Anger. Depression. Failure. Disappointment.
Such is the universe in Charles Burnett’s powerful and criminally overlooked film Killer of Sheep. It is a hard-hitting work of art from a unique filmmaker for his time.
Black cinema in the 70’s is usually defined as an era of blaxploitation films such as Shaft, Foxy Brown, Blackula, and Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song. Although sometimes far from technically or narratively perfect these films had a powerful voice and vision that demanded to be heard.
Even though it was also made in the 70’s Killer of Sheep is an entirely different animal.
It is in black and white, but it demonstrates that life is anything but.
Incidentally Nathaniel Dorksy describes the film perfectly when writing about Italian neo-realists. “The quality of the filmmaking is primitive yet graceful, extremely intelligent but without vanity or polish.”
Seemingly inspired by what the Italian neo realists accomplished Burnet presents the viewer with a slice of life picture of a suburban African American community. He does this by honing in on one broken family and following them in vignette-like fashion through out their daily routines and encounters.
Depressed and numb, the father of this family works the night shift at a local sheep slaughterhouse. Dispirited to the point of emotionally isolating himself from his family he is unable to escape the feeling that he has lived a failed life.
His wife is constricted to the home, where she can only fix the house and hope that life will get better. Besides how her appearence and the appearence of the house she is powerless.
Their teenage son becomes more and more distant as the film goes along. Although he finds his freedom with his friends, this boy couldn’t be more dislocated from his own flesh and blood.
Their four-year-old daughter watches the dysfunction; she like the audience is an observer.
There are plenty more characters that inhabit the screen, their faces also full of pain, but sometimes joy as well.
The themes of gender, childhood innocence, urban ruin, and the meaning of life are so subtly articulated that it isn’t until the credits are rolling that the viewer feels the weight of what has just been witnessed. It is then that one is haunted by the images. It is then the viewer is thankful that this vastly important film was made, but also saddened that the picture it paints was and is a reality for a lot of communities.
Although not officially released in the United States until 2006 due to copyright issues Killer of Sheep is both a significant historical landmark and a film that transcends time in its uncanny ability to discover and display the soul in all its painful messy beauty.