Movie Review: Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep

By Joan K. Widdifield, Psy.D
Movie Magazine International
In my cousin Breege's Christmas letter this year, she said about her son: "Robert has been known to say, 'Mom, I'm starving,' while he is actually chewing." This image came to me last week while attending the critics' screening of Charles Burnett's "Killer of Sheep." Every scene was so luscious I wanted to see it again right then, and didn't want the film to end. In addition to our basic drives, humans have the need for beauty in many forms; watching this film gave me that rare breathtaking headiness you feel when you witness great art.

Now a veteran filmmaker with several productions to his credit, Burnett shot "Killer of Sheep" during the weekends in the mid-seventies as a UCLA student project, for less than $10,000, mostly out of his pocket. "Killer of Sheep" won prestigious awards like the 1981 Critics' Award at the Berlin International Film Festival. In 1991, the Library of Congress declared the film a national treasure and placed it in the National Film Registry for its historical significance. But "Killer of Sheep" never got wide distribution until now, partly because it was too costly to get music clearances.

This is a social commentary drama that takes place in the Watts neighborhood of L.A. showing the deprivation and hopelessness. Scenes show dysfunction and waste. There isn't anything constructive for the children to do, and the adults are either working as hard as they can in unfulfilling jobs, or turning to crime and alcohol. But there is warmth and humor shared among the people. Scenes of children playing are pure, and natural. It's fascinating to see given what we know now about the Watts riots, and dance styles that emerged after the riots featured in the recent documentary “Rize.”

Burnett's style is compared to post-World War II Italian neo-realism. Each scene is notable in its composition, rhythm of movement, and lighting and shadows. "Killer of Sheep" is shot in black and white, and in a documentary style. Most of the actors are non-professionals. Burnett captures a slice of life, showing daily realistic scenes, without passing judgment or solving the problems. He shows it like it is, which ends up to be an effective method, creating a deeply moving piece.

The main character, Stan - played by Henry Gayle Sayers - who I will interview next week - reminds me of Tony Leung, best actor from 2001 at Cannes (“In the Mood for Love”), because of his sex appeal and mesmerizing screen presence. Sayers, like Leung is quiet, with an understated acting style, but somehow draws you in and is a compelling and poignant figure.

Symbolism runs through the film. It sears into the unconscious and stays with you, much like Jay Rosenblatt's experimental films do. The experience is greater than the sum of its parts, and one that made me think for days.

Stan works in a slaughterhouse, and we see how life's pressures take a toll on him and his family life. One of the most tender scenes is when he and his wife (Kaycee Moore) dance near a sunlit window to Dinah Washington's rendition of "This Bitter Earth." The scene is sweet and romantic; Stan's wife wants to make love to him, but he is emotionally shut down; in the next scenes he returns to work to kill sheep. Stan’s wife cries at the window, rebuffed again.

The soundtrack is a treat, ranging from African-American pop to blues, with songs from Dinah Washington, Paul Robeson, and Earth, Wind & Fire.

"Killer of Sheep" is considered Charles Burnett's crowning achievement. Burnett is a singular filmmaker, and one of the most interesting this country has ever produced. This drama goes in my top ten list.

For Movie Magazine, this is Joan Widdifield.
More Information:
Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep
Henry G. Sanders, lead role