Not So Bitter After All: “Killer of Sheep”

Ashley Naftule
Killer of Sheep (1978)

It Came From The Wayback Machine Vol. 9 (Orig. published in FilmBar, 2017)

A married couple dance in their living room as a record player spins Dinah Washington’s “This Bitter Earth.” They dance for the entirety of the song: the husband shirtless and grim-faced, the wife in a dress. She kisses his neck and tries to coax affection out of him, but he’s too numb and withdrawn to return it. The song ends and they continue dancing for awhile longer, their bodies pressed close together in the silence. They couldn’t be further apart.

The song comes back later. This time the husband, Stan, is at work. He’s in a slaughterhouse, trussing up sheep for the kill and urging a packed flock of them to march down the chute to their ends. Dinah’s voice, full of warmth and yearning, sings about how this bitter earth isn’t so bitter after all as the camera sinks down to the sheep’s level. It hangs there with them as they mill around, taking their sweet time to head to oblivion. The camera’s POV makes it feel like it’s a part of the flock- making US, the viewer, a part of them too.

Whenever I think about Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, I think back to the Dinah Washington scenes. In a film full of memorable scenes and astonishing compositions, those two scenes stand out. They’re the heart and soul of Burnett’s one-of-a-kind picture.

For decades Killer of Sheep was a lost classic. Shot by Burnett in Watts between 1972–1975, the B&W film was meant to be the director’s Master of Fine Arts thesis. Completed in 1977, the film won awards and acclaim at the Berlin International Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival. Despite the rave reviews, the film would not get a proper release until 2007.

The reason why Killer of Sheep became a “lost” classic for so long was due to the film’s soundtrack. Burnett packed the film with a wide range of songs that acted as a history of African-American music: R&B, blues, jazz, spirituals, and classical tunes. In addition to Dinah Washington, Burnett used songs by Louis Armstrong, Scott Joplin, Elmore James, Little Walter, Earth Wind and Fire, and Paul Robeson (who was a prominent black filmmaker and actor in his own right). Killer of Sheep was shot for less than $10,000 (roughly $38,000 in 2017 dollars); there was nothing left in the budget to cover the hefty licensing fees for all those songs (over $150,000!). That’s why Burnett’s film languished in a rights limbo until it got restored and released by UCLA and Milestone Films in 2007.

One wonders how different American cinema could have been if Burnett’s film had a wide release when it was finished. It’s a striking piece of cinema and unlike anything else made in the States at the time.

Burnett’s film feels like an American interpretation of Italian Neo-Realism cinema (and the downtrodden, working class films of Jean Renoir, one of Burnett’s biggest influences). There isn’t much in the way of plot. We have a protagonist — Stan, a sleep-deprived, frustrated worker in a slaughterhouse. But the film isn’t really about him. Much in the same way that La Dolce Vita isn’t really about Marcello Mastroanni — he’s our POV, a drifting center the camera can return to when it isn’t following other characters around. Watts is the real character of the film; Stan is just one of the little people who’s trapped there.

On the surface, the Neo-Realism influences are obvious: the B&W cinematography, the dilapidated setting, the hustling characters trying to navigate their way through grinding poverty. But what sets Burnett’s film apart from classics like Rome Open City and Umberto D is that he injects his films with humor and liveliness. In that way, he surpasses his influences: I could watch Killer of Sheep over and over again. The same can’t be said for the movies of Rossellini and De Sica — they’re incredible filmmakers, but their films often feel like they’re competing in the Misery Olympics. Bicycle Thieves is an amazing piece of work, but one that I have to steel myself before watching.

Burnett’s movie crackles with biting and profane dialogue. His characters shit talk and wisecrack with the best of them (it wouldn’t be hard to imagine a young Elmore Leonard watching Sheep and taking notes). Whether it’s a deadbeat brushing off Stan’s demands he pay his debts by saying “All I got on me are my good looks” or a disinterested woman cutting down a dude trying to mack on her by saying “you about as tasteless as a carrot”, the characters in Sheep lighten the mood with their take-no-shit attitude. And since the words are coming out of the mouths of amateurs and non-actors, it gives the film an added feeling of authenticity. It often times feels more like a documentary than a narrative film.

What also sets Killer of Sheep apart is its depiction of Watts. America cinema that focuses on black communities living in inner cities and slums tend to reuse the same tropes over and over again: gang violence, police brutality, drugs. What’s fascinating about Killer of Sheep is how it doesn’t go down these roads.

The specter of violence is there, whether it’s one character suggesting that Stan rob a liquor store to solve his money woes; a pair of bumbling thieves trying to run down an alley with a stolen TV while threatening to kick a bystander’s heart out; or a pair of gangsters trying to convince the sheep-killer to be their muscle for a job. It’s there, but it doesn’t dominate the film. In a modern movie, Stan probably would have broke bad and robbed the store and got swayed by the thugs to join up with them so he could support his family. He doesn’t, though — the thugs and threats of violence are just extras passing through the frame. Small threads that make up part of the fabric of life in Watts.

The film jumps from following Stan around to depicting gangs of kids running wild and having a ball in the ruined lots and alleys of Watts. Hurling rocks at trains and at each other while wielding planks of wood as shields; hopping from rooftop to rooftop like ninjas; or throwing around cinder blocks and rotted beams while they kill time. It also cuts to images of the sheep in the factory. The film spares us from too much gruesome imagery — aside from seeing some flesh being scraped off a sheep’s skull, there isn’t much in the way of gore. So if you’ve seen Touki Bouki or Franju’s Blood Of The Beasts and the thought of watching yet another film of animals getting slaughtered makes you feel queasy, don’t worry — Killer of Sheep isn’t PETA torture porn.

It’s those callbacks to the sheep that give Killer of Sheep an unsettling atmosphere. Is the reason why Stan is so tired and numb because he sees a kinship between his family and the sheep? Beings without agency, penned together and being pushed along by forces they can’t control?

While Stan’s family has a house and a rusty truck, they’re barely squeaking by. The precariousness of their situation becomes obvious when Stan balks at the suggestion he’s poor: “We’re not poor! We give stuff away to the Salvation Army!” Stan thinks he’s middle class because he can give stuff away and all his friends keep hitting him up for money, but the truth is he’s just as poor as everyone else on his block. Like the sheep standing in the middle of the chute, unsure whether to move forward or back, he’s paralyzed by a lack of momentum and options in his life.

Just like De Sica’s bicycle thief, we see Stan grinding and struggling to stay afloat. And like the Italian masters, we see how little calamities can fuck people over royally — like how Stan spends a good portion of his paycheck on a motor, spends five minutes carrying the heavy thing to his truck, only for it to roll out the back and break apart on the asphalt.

It’s heavy stuff, but thanks to the lively dialogue and the warmth that Burnett bestows on his characters it’s an uplifting viewing experience.Killer of Sheep is the kind of film that makes this bitter earth not so bitter after all.

Ashley Naftule

Written by

Associate Artistic Director & playwright @ Space55 theatre. Bylines in Vice, The Outline, Phoenix New Times, The Hard Times. Chico & Karl are the best Marx Bros

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