Killer of Sheep, the first feature by Charles Burnett, was shot in the Los Angeles ghetto of Watts for less than $10,000 in what my press notes say was “roughly a year of weekends” and has rarely played theatrically since its tiny release in 1977. So why do so many of its black-and-white images feel as if they’ve always existed—as much a part of our collective unconscious as Walt Whitman or the voice of Paul Robeson? The movie is misrepresented by its frequent comparison to works of Italian neorealism, Bresson, Ozu, Cassavetes, etc. In its crystalline restoration by the UCLA Film and Television Archive, Killer of Sheep can be seen (and reseen) as a great—the greatest—cinematic tone poem of American urban life.
There is no narrative, only a series of moments, blackout sketches, some underscored by Robeson, Etta James, Dinah Washington, and other African-Americans who managed to combine in their music both the hope and the hopelessness of their lives, as black Americans and Americans. Burnett cuts back and forth between the worlds of the grown-up, unsmiling Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), who works in a slaughterhouse, and of his children—seen glancingly, hurling rocks and dirt, scampering among freight-train tracks, leaping between rooftops, clowning, singing, crying. Gradually, the emotions in these images and anecdotes accumulate. Stan’s wife (Kaycee Moore) has an urgent, pleading presence: She wants her husband’s body and, more than that, to rekindle his strength. But Stan, like so many other Burnett protagonists, is no longer at home in this world.
Burnett doesn’t belabor the comparison between the sheep whose bodies Stan plants on hooks and the children he feels unable to protect—he doesn’t belabor anything. But the juxtapositions are impossible to ignore. The children are so vulnerable, so easily bruised. A daughter strokes her father’s face, consoling him for his inability to console her. The soundtrack says the spirit of these people is inexhaustible, the images—the faces—say otherwise. Burnett says both things must be true. Killer of Sheep is indelible.