May 18, 2007

Killer of Sheep/Charles Burnett

Reviewer: Craig Phillips
Rating (out of 5): *****

Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep, certainly the only MFA thesis film I can name that made the Library of Congress' National Film Registry on the first ballot, really is a national treasure.


Shot in Watts over a year of weekends for less than $10,000, the film has both a timelessness and an appropriate aimlessness to it. This is an everyday world, blue-collar and poor and real, where acquiring a used engine is an all-day proposition (and the moment where the men lose the engine in an accident is the one frustrating moment in the whole film for me). The main character is Stan (Henry Gale Sanders, one of the few professionals in the cast), a sensitive father of two who has become detached from his life, and from his wife, while working too long in a slaughterhouse. He comes home crabby, and you would, too, if you worked on the killing floors, cutting up sheep for a living, being poor and tired and trying to feed your family. The film is filled with indellible images: the boy wearing a hound-dog mask; the little girl (played by Burnett's real-life daughter) who, with her doll, listens and claps to soul music; the windshield-less car; the boys throwing rocks at trains and the battered ruins of abandoned buildings in South Central L.A. (and at each other); the silhouetted dance between Stan and his lonely wife.

Much is said about the music, which includes a powerful usage of Paul Robeson's "America To Me" song poem and many other classic sounds of African-Americana, including Etta James, Dinah Washington, Little Walter and Earth, Wind and Fire. As has already been noted elsewhere one of the main reasons the film sat out of print for so long was due to music rights issues, so it's great pleasure to not only see the film again but to hear it, too, as the aural landscape is as important to its success as anything. (A story is told in the press notes about how Burnett had wanted to use a song that had partially inspired the film - Luis Russell's "Sad Lover Blues" - which he imagined playing over the scene in which Stan dances with his wife. But the old wax record they had broke and they could never find another copy - this is in the 1970s, remember - so Burnett ended up using Washington's appropriately melancholy "This Bitter Earth.")

The fantastic thing about this beautiful film is how little it tries to make a statement about anything; it is, simply, life. (Adam Hartzell makes the good point here about the influence this film obviously had on David Gordon Green's George Washington.)

Killer of Sheep was preserved beautifully by UCLA's film preservationists who saved it from detoriating stock, blew it up to 35mm, improved the best aspects of the film while also being careful to preserve the rough qualities, too.


I actually had the great privilege of talking with Burnett about this WWII script I've been working tirelessly, endlessly on; it's a piece set in the American South during that period, something that Burnett knows far more about than I, and we talked about films that could influence my work and give the atmosphere the right sense of three-dimensionality and fairness - fairness is always an important consideration for Burnett, to have all characters shaded, even the more "cracker-ish" white Southerners. And one film he mentioned over and over again, so much so that I went and watched it twice, was Renoir's The Southerner. (Which I reviewed on GreenCine, here.)

Burnett's filmography since Killer of Sheep is frustratingly short, but there have been some masterpieces (To Sleep With Anger - also inexplicably unavailable on DVD at the moment) and lovely small, underseen works like the made-for-cable Nightjohn, about a 19th century slave girl in the Antebellum south who learns to read, and the endearing, earnest if a little simplistic Civil Rights era story (also told from a young girl's point of view) Selma, Lord, Selma. The Glass Shield was an uneven but very interesting look at police corruption, full of the integrity you'd expect from a Burnett project. I always got the feeling he'd had some bad experiences - as many independent-minded artist/filmmakers have - with either scripts getting rewritten, or coming in underdeveloped, and having to work for studios or cable outlets, not fully being able to let his artistic vision shine through. (I haven't seen his more independent films My Brother's Wedding - which I've heard good things about but is almost impossible to find anywhere - and The Annihilation of Fish.) But his piece for the series The Blues - Warming By the Devil's Fire - probably comes closest of all his recent work of truly being his vision. At any rate, here's hoping the new awareness of this old film brings Burnett back to the forefront of world cinema.

[Read Susan Gerhard's interview with Burnett here.]

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Posted by cphillips at May 18, 2007 2:43 PM

Wow. Five stars. (First review I've read of yours that went this high.) I've heard about this film for years and years (and believe it made a video appearance some time back in rather poor print quality). Any idea when will K of S will be out on DVD? Thanks for the fine review, which should lead a lot of us to look into this one, once it's available for home viewing.

Posted by: James van Maanen at May 19, 2007 12:44 PM

Thanks --
Milestone Films will be releasing the Killer of Sheep DVD later this year. More info here:

I'll keep ya posted! Look for it this fall, I'd wager.

Posted by: Craig P at May 25, 2007 11:25 AM