Around the same time other filmmakers were filtering the African-American experience through the genre lens of blaxploitation, Charles Burnett made a landmark feature, set amidst everyday life in Watts, that provided a less varnished version of that experience. This isn’t to say that Killer of Sheep is a docudrama, or dry in any way. But it is to denote the striking stylistic gap between this and the more celebrated black films of the 1970s.
Killer of Sheep focuses on Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), a slaughterhouse worker whose long hours on the job and care to stay on the right side of the law have failed to deliver the American dream. In slice-of-life vignettes that stand in for plot, we see that poverty and desperation pervade his downtrodden community, where kids pass their days throwing rocks in abandoned factory yards and sleazy acquaintances try to persuade Stan to join them on ill-fated criminal schemes. Stan and his wife (Kaycee Moore) try to make their house an oasis in the midst of this—he repairs their linoleum floor, she keeps tabs on their two kids—but at the end of the day he still finds himself sitting at their rickety kitchen table, staring into space, wondering if this is all there is.
The film’s saddest moment is a moving single take of Stan and his wife dancing—well, more like softly swaying while embracing—in their bedroom to the sound of Dinah Washington singing “This Bitter Earth.” The song, like the film, is a plaintive piece of romantic realism that recognizes how life can often feel like a dead end. What begins as a moment of solace, a potential piece of joy for the movie’s couple, instead ends abruptly as Stan breaks away in dissatisfaction, leaving his wife at a loss.
At the end of the day Stan finds himself sitting at his rickety kitchen table, staring into space, wondering if this is all there is.
Sanders’ impassive lead performance works as well as it does because the music in Killer of Sheep does most of the acting. In addition to Dinah Washington, who can also be heard singing “Unforgettable,” the soundtrack features three numbers sung by Paul Robeson, as well as Earth, Wind & Fire, Rachmaninoff, and Gershwin. Burnett couldn’t secure the rights to the music, which is why the film itself went undistributed for many years. Still, I’m glad he held out, for the soundtrack has an eclectic, hard-won lyricism that captures its characters’ inner lives better than any dialogue could.
More poeticism can be felt in Burnett’s use of the camera, from the tracking shot following a passel of boys chasing a train to an angle that looks up to the sky, from between two buildings, and captures kids leaping from one roof to the next, like birds who can’t entirely take flight. In more than one of these scenes of children at play, the camera momentarily focuses on a boy—I believe it’s the same boy each time—who gets hurt: hit by an errant rock, say, or pushed to the ground. The other children tease him or scamper past, but Burnett’s camera pauses to recognize his pain.
Killer of Sheep also takes time to depict the place referred to in its title, showing the brutal, bloody work Stan does at the slaughterhouse. He’s competent, efficient—good at his job. But in his eyes, especially when he gets home and looks around his neighborhood, he seems to be thinking, “I am a killer of sheep, yes, but am I more than that? Am I less? Are we all?”