An angry black man shouts at his son for failing to get into a fight to protect his younger brother; the boy’s mother contemptuously slaps him. Years later, the boy, Stan, lives with his wife and children in Watts, a black Los Angeles neighbourhood. He works in an abattoir. He cannot sleep, and is unable to respond to his wife’s sexual desires. Life unfolds slowly, a day at a time. Children play in vacant lots, on rooftops, in derelict buildings and railroad sidings. Two men try to get Stan to join them in committing a crime. The white woman who runs the liquor store hits on him. He scrapes together the money to buy a car engine, but the engine gets broken. He tries to take his family out into the country to a racetrack, but the car gets a puncture and there is no spare tire. Back home, it looks like it might rain. Stan is finally able to – wants to – return his wife’s attentions. He still works in an abattoir.
Burnett’s debut feature – submitted for his MFA at UCLA and only recently commercially available – is often compared to such Italian neo-realist films as Vittorio De Sica’s Ladri di biciclette (1948). However, it diverges from such models in significant ways. It eschews the sentimental, and its emotional pay-off – the stirring of mutual desire and intimacy between Stan and his wife – is downplayed, diverted into the hinted-at rain and the low-key celebration of another woman’s pregnancy. The slow accretion of incidents and events might invite comparison with Robert Bresson rather than De Sica, but there is no sense of a narrative driving the careful observation of everyday minutiae. Favouring a fixed camera, desultory, half-heard conversations and the distant sounds of children playing, Burnett depicts the brute facticity of the material and the quotidian. There is no trace of the frenetic or the talkative that one finds in John Cassavetes or Spike Lee. Unlike Georges Franju’s Le sang des bêtes (1949) and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), the abattoir scenes do not suggest that slaughterhouse work is somehow necessarily more alienating than other labour; nor do they draw the kind of overtly metaphoric comparison that we find in Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) between workers and sheep; nor do they make a political point about the long-established connection between slaughterhouses and marginalized, at-risk workforces, such as we find in John Sayles’ Silver City (2004). The abattoir does not become a site of resistance, like the sausage factory in Jean-Luc Godard’s and Jean-Pierre Gorin’s Tout va bien (1972) or the zinc mine in what is probably the nearest thing to an American precursor, Herbert Biberman’s Salt of the Earth (1954). Perhaps the reason for making such comparisons is not so much to triangulate Burnett’s particular accomplishment but to admit him – albeit belatedly – to the company of such film-makers.
Rejecting the Blaxploitation depiction of the ghetto, Burnett captures the mundane experience of impoverished urban life. When Stan struggles down an awkward staircase with the car engine only to see it destroyed, there is no attempt at the abstracted absurdism of Laurel and Hardy’s The Music Box (1932); and his insomnia is not some pat cliché about individuated psychological trauma, as in the conclusion that ruins Brad Anderson’s The Machinist (2004), but the product of a life that just goes on and on, relentlessly. Instead, Killer of Sheep is about the specific contours of the community in which he grew up. This is even more evident in the ways in which it captures children at play when they have nowhere to play, except potentially dangerous spaces fallen into disuse, and nothing to play with, except each other. And it is evident in the remarkable soundtrack (featuring Faye Adams, Louis Armstrong, Arthur Crudup, Lowell Fulson, Cecil Gant, Elmore James, Paul Robeson, William Grant Still, Dinah Washington, Little Walter and Earth, Wind and Fire) which weaves AfricanAmerican culture, and a particular cultural experience of it, deep into the fabric of Burnett’s blues movie.
Distributor: Mypheduh Films, Milestone Film and Video
Director: Charles Burnett; Producer: Charles Burnett
Screenwriter: Charles Burnett; Cinematographer: Charles Burnett
Editor: Charles Burnett;
Duration: 83 minutes
Cast: Henry Gayle Sanders, Kaycee Moore, Angela Burnett
Directory of World Cinema: American Independent, Edited by John Berra, published by Intellect Books, Bristol, UK / Chicago, USA.