Killer of Sheep
Charles Burnett’s first feature went virtually unseen before it was enshrined in the National Film Registry by the US Library of Congress in 1989, but his UCLA graduation film is a singular accomplishment. Of course that singularity is a question of representation, but Burnett’s movie is distinguished by its aesthetic choices as well as its blue collar African-American milieu.
The biblical-sounding title refers to Stan’s job in an abattoir – the best he can do to keep clean and look after his family. The sad truth is that this grim line of work is on a par with the hopelessness that makes up the rest of the daily grind in South Central. For better or worse, he has a job. If Stan seems numbed, Burnett’s monochrome compositions are anything but; passionate etchings from lived experience. It’s like watching a living photographic exhibition. More than anything the soundtrack rights kept the movie out of sight, but these songs speak volumes: Paul Robeson, Dinah Washington, Little Walter. It may sound strange to suggest it, but the closest approximation may be the early films of British filmmaker Terence Davies, which similarly infuse scenes of poverty and struggle with hymnal transcendence.
Rightfully considered a key work of the L.A. Rebellion film movement and the sort of debut movie that invites comparisons to A Love Supreme and Leaves of Grass as much as other ’70s stories of scraping by. The family at the center of this free-flowing, lyrical en extremis drama are struggling in a city that still feels like its vibrating from past civil unrest, and the movie doubles nicely as a snapshot of a Southern California neighborhood at a certain time and a certain social intersection. But it’s also a work of extreme American beauty.
David Fear, Rolling Stone
Burnett is one of film’s poets. His extraordinary lyric gifts and strikingly humanistic imagery are abundantly present [in Killer of Sheep]. It shouldn’t be missed… A flat-out treasure, impervious to time.
Jay Carr, The Boston Globe
Burnett has a wonderful eye, and his ability to create harmonious compositions from the free-form chaos of the streets brings to mind the work of photographers like Helen Levitt and Robert Frank, best known for his collection The Americans. He operated the 16-millimeter camera himself, edited the black-and-white images into a visual poem and added the ballads, the jazz and the moody blues that seep into your head like smoke. The result is an American masterpiece, independent to the bone.
Manohla Dargis, New York Times
August 31 only: Introduction from UBC educator William Brown
Henry Gayle Sanders, Kaycee Moore, Charles Bracy, Angela Burnett
FIPRESCI Prize, Berlin 1981