Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep Gets Theatrical Release
Salon film critic Andrew O'Hehir has pointed out today that Charles Burnett's mid-1970s film, Killer of Sheep, is being released at the IFC, which means this is the first time this brilliant film has experienced a theatrical release.
Yes, you read that right: a 30+ year-old film is getting released in theatres for the first time.
Killer of Sheep was the first film shown to us in Professor Ray Carney's American Independent Film Class when I studied at BU. It was a bizarre experience, since there was (is) no real "story" per se. Seemingly without plot, Killer of Sheep explores a black L.A. ghetto in the mid-'70s through the eyes of Stan (played by Henry Gayle Sanders), a sensitive man growing detached and numb from the physical and emotional toll of working at a slaughterhouse.
Throughout the movie, you see Stan working at the slaughterhouse, coming home with no energy to sleep with (let alone talk to) his wife and following his friends around as they attempt various scams (one of which involving an attempt to sell a car engine). Interspersed are montages of young children from the neighborhood playing in vacant lots, train lots, rooftops and back alleys.
The movie, shot on location in Watts on a budget of less than $10,000, is one of the most honest and accurate portrayals of being poor in the U.S. without being the type of sentimental and angry "issue" movie that Spike Lee is known for. (Based on the films of Mr. Burnett's that I've seen, I will assert that the work of Mr. Burnett is 10 times more subtle, accurate and important than the work of Mr. Lee, which is why he's been mainly ignored.)
In his excellent essay in Salon, Mr. O'Hehir writes:
"There is a clear political agenda behind 'Killer of Sheep' and the rest of his work that only an idiot could miss, but Burnett is profoundly uninterested in boosterism or propaganda or false optimism. He has belonged to the long tradition of prophets without honor, but he may finally be getting his due. In his peculiar and lonely fashion he's not only the most important African-American director but one of the most distinctive filmmakers this country has ever produced."
What's interesting about Killer of Sheep is that it's simultaneously more hopeless and depressing than most films about poverty (it doesn't give the slightest hint that Stan's life is going to change), it's also more optimistic and life-affirming, because you realize you're not watching angry stereotypes (like in Do The Right Thing) but very believable people that are portrayed without judgment (it's also very funny in spots). It doesn't pander or insult the audience's intelligence (it's pretty much showing the world as it really is with minimal commentary). Mr. Burnett doesn't flatter or assault the audience; his characters are neither victims nor heroes. There is a message to the movie (I suppose), but it's not a message of "We will overcome this" so much as one of, "We'll survive."
(Yeah, it's not too surprising that this movie didn't get mass distribution.)
This may not be the most fun film going experience, but Killer of Sheep is one of those movies that you should see if you have an appreciation for film as art form.
Have a good weekend, folks. I'll resume plugging the living hell out of Suburban Peepshow on Monday.
Killer of directors,
James "Justifiable Homicide" Comtois