Black cinematic history is filled with pioneers who, barred from the mainstream industry, raised their own money and produced, wrote and directed their own movies because it was the only way to get their stories on the screen. The concept of independent film was largely defined by these black filmmakers. From the earliest days of Hollywood, there was a separate black industry with directors such as William Foster who created silent comedies that could stand alongside those of Chaplin and Keaton. The dynamo Oscar Micheaux carved a place for African–American stories at the time of the transition from silence to sound. This prevalence for forced entrepreneurship has continued through Spike Lee, Robert Townsend and Tyler Perry, each with a similar tale of being shut out from the prevailing business and being forced to create industries of their own. If Hollywood happened to pick up on the style of these new voices, it would often bastardize them or treat them as passing fads, as what happened after Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) inspired the industry to turn Blaxploitation into the dominating style of much of the decade before it quickly flamed out.
Charles Burnett and his wonderful Killer of Sheep (1979) are in this tradition of pioneering black cinema. His quiet but enormously powerful movie, made as his thesis at UCLA, stands as an anti-Blaxploitation statement, a movie that turned in the outrageous for extreme realism. At a time when Hollywood was producing Star Wars (1977) and looking toward the future, Burnett made Killer of Sheep for $10,000 and looked solidly in the present. Killer of Sheep is one of the most evocative movies ever made about racism and poverty. It doesn’t have the anger of Do the Right Thing (1989) or the drama of Hoop Dreams (1994), but it contains the same emotional truth. Here is a movie that ennobles the lives it portrays without romanticizing them. It tells the stories of people in Watts over a few days in which nothing particularly interesting or momentous happens, only survival, the testing of strength and the expression of love.
There is no plot per se, only unconnected moments both lovely and despairing, some at the same time. We mainly follow the poor family of Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), who has a wife (Kaycee Moore) and two children (Angela Burnett and Jack Drummond). Stan is a decent man, but he’s tired and beaten by life. His wife is pretty and sad, and though she puts on make-up to greet him, it seems out of routine. He doesn’t notice anyway, not because he’s no longer attracted to her, only because there’s too much else on his mind. That they love each other, I have no doubt; it’s possibly what keeps them going in the face of their crippling situation. “You never smile anymore,” she tells them.
The kids are slightly more vibrant, playing and laughing around their neighborhood, but we wonder how long before they see that neighborhood for what it is, a crime-filled wasteland. They idly walk past burglaries as if they’ve seen thousands. They make toys out of what they find, including rocks and hard trash that they throw at each other. When one of them gets hit with too many rocks, they stop but then swiftly begin shucking the stones at a passing train. You gotta throw rocks at something. We fear it won’t be long before they understand their parents’ discouragement.
Stan struggles to sleep. His luck is not good. Luck, the movie argues, is not a luxury of the poor. When he has a moment to interject his life with entertainment, as he does when he’s included in a car ride to the racetrack, something goes wrong (the car springs a flat and there is no spare, canceling the trip). He buys a car engine but can’t manage to transport it to where he needs it. In a devastating sequence, the movie spends a lot of time on Stan and a friend laboriously carrying the engine from an apartment and loading it on the truck and then spends a little showing its abrupt and final death as it falls out of the truck bed. Perhaps the reason Stan turns down an offer to take part in a potentially lucrative crime has less to do with his conscience and more to do with the fact that he knows how it will turn out.
And yet he lives his life. He imparts wisdom to his children, he is capable of deep thoughts (the moment when he relays how holding a tea cup to his forehead reminds him of a post-coital sweetness is heartbreaking), and, when the moment presents itself, he dances with his wife. In 120 years of cinema and the likes of Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse and Bill Robinson, my two favorite dances in the movies are performed by non-professionals. In Visconti’s The Leopard (1963), Burt Lancaster and Claudia Cardinale perform a waltz that is a stunning expression of human mortality. In Killer of Sheep, Sanders and Moore slow dance with each other to Dinah Washington’s “This Bitter Earth” in a way that is both austere and deeply emotional. This is a lover’s dance, perhaps more than any other, because this love is beyond inflaming passions; it sustains the will to go on.
The strength of the movie is its understatement; it forces nothing. In its desire to avoid a message by simply showing reality, it makes its message. It implores you to be as observant as it is, and to be as empathetic. Too many movies use devices (even in a positive way) but there are no devices in Killer of Sheep, no effects. What we’re seeing is, in Roger Ebert’s words, “the quiet nobility of lives lived with values but without opportunities.” The movie’s bleak verism has been compared to Italian neorealists such as De Sica and Rossellini, and Burnett cites Renoir as an influence. Certainly, Burnett shares Renoir’s affinity for others (he also has the compositional eye of an Ozu and a humanism that recalls Satyajit Ray), but I thought of a different non-neorealist Italian director during this latest viewing of Killer of Sheep. Much of what permeates Burnett’s movie is a crushing sense of hopeless boredom; these are people with nothing to do and no way of changing that. Michelangelo Antonioni was a master of ennui, the same kind that bedevils the characters in Killer of Sheep, but Antonioni traded in the pathetic boredom of the rich and emotionally decrepit. Stan and his family are victims of an institutionalized uselessness, where a man capable of philosophizing about his tea cup is systematically allowed to work only in a depressing sheep–rendering plant. At least the sheep don’t have the faculties to realize that they are just waiting to die.
The movie was widely praised at its release but seen by few. Burnett couldn’t afford the rights to the music he used in his film and refused to change the soundtrack to something affordable. Though this decision damaged the movie’s ability to be properly distributed despite its plaudits and awards, it enhanced its legacy and artistic merit. Dinah Washington is as much a part of the film’s greatest moment as Sanders or Moore. The movie became a holy grail for film fans until it was restored in the early 2000s and had its music rights secured.
I started this review by listing the accomplishments of pioneering black filmmakers who routinely used their hard work and determination to tell their stories in an industry that didn’t want them. I wanted to highlight a few of the trailblazers who spearheaded new and positive steps forward in race representation in movies (there were and are many others). However, I also wanted to point out also that despite each step forward, another intrepid artist had to come along and reinvent the wheel again, which points to mainstream Hollywood’s extreme aversion to telling minority stories, an aversion that continues today. Burnett’s Killer of Sheep extols a vision of disenfranchisement that expresses a deep and ongoing malaise. This is the way it is and this is the way it always will be. There’s great despair in that. That it is also about the endurance of the human spirit is a hopeful consolation.