Killer of Sheep (1978)

“Man, I ain’t poor. Look, I give away things to the Salvation Army; you can’t give away nothin’ to Salvation Army if you poor. I mean, we may not have a damn thing sometimes – you wanna see somebody that’s poor? Now, you go around and look at Walters. Now, he be sittin’ over a oven, and, and with nothin’ but a coat on, and, and sittin’ around there rubbin’ their knees all day and eatin’ nothin’ but wild greens picked out of a vacant lot. Now, that ain’t me… and damn sure won’t be.”

‘Killer of Sheep’, directed by Charles Burnett in 1978, is an American drama movie set in the Watts district of Los Angeles. It’s a black and white, gritty, non-linear film, drawing inspiration for the look and dialogue from the Italian neorealist genre, and for the narrative from Fellini. It features incidents in the life of Stan, played by Henry G. Sanders, and his family as they live, play and work in the decaying poverty of the African-American community in the 1970s. Stan works in a slaughterhouse and is shown at work, at home with his wife and resisting the suggestion of friends that he gets involved in a criminal plot. The film is really a series of vignettes that illustrate both the trials of Stan’s life and the small pleasures that he and his family find. The children are shown playing with rudimentary toys and finding their own games in the dusty waste-ground. These vignettes add up to a feeling of confinement in the area caused by poverty, a feeling that is confirmed at the end of the film when Stan and his family attempt to drive out of the city only to puncture a tyre he can’t afford to replace and is forced to return. The neorealist style brings to mind Roberto Rosselini’s triology of post-war movies, particularly ‘Germany, Year Zero’, and this weirdly gives the setting of ‘Killer of Sheep’ an apocalyptic feel, as if the depression of the 1970s and the way it hits marginalised communities is akin to the effects of war. The film feels like no other, but the realism is tempered by an eclectic soundtrack, the cost of the rights for which resulted in the film not being released and therefore being rare. The music and a couple of moments of abstract sentimentality lift the film onto another level. Burnett’s achievement is to make a film that perfectly represents the hidden hardships of life in a city that also includes the affluent Hollywood community, but to balance this with touches of expressionistic poetry that remind us that this is not just a social document, but also a highly effective work of art.

Would I recommend it? Yes – it’s tempting to suggest watching with ‘Short Cuts’ as another representation of LA, or even Lynch’s ‘Mulholland Drive’ for a more surreal depiction of the underbelly of the city.

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