Killer of Sheep (Charles Burnett, 1977)

What's it about? A loose, non-linear portrait of African-American working-class life in South Central Los Angeles, centred around the quietly disaffected Stan (Henry G. Sanders), who works at the local abbatoir killing - you've guessed it - sheep.


Is it any good? Every now and then, I force myself to sit down and watch a film that is highly regarded, but one that I have no interest at all in. Why? An effort to garner some credibility, perhaps. Or maybe penance for watching another sub-standard Hollywood blockbuster. Anyway, sometimes, in spite of my initial misgivings, I realise that I am watching a truly great film. Alas, Killer of Sheep is not one of those films. Now, don't start handing out the pitchforks and flaming torches just yet, and let me explain. I do appreciate that this is a historically and culturally significant film, being one of the first films to depict 'normal' African-American communities, rather than the stereotyped characters from blaxploitation films. Made for around $10,000 when Burnett was a student at UCLA, it was filmed on weekends and was an attempt to reflect the everyday life of his community on film, without romanticizing it. In doing so, it notably does not force any sort of 'message' about class or race, although that hasn't stopped others forcing those things upon it (the symbolism of a black man skinning a white sheep? Oh please.) The focus on humdrum life of the characters, along with the naturalistic performances from the non-professional actors, means it has been compared favourably with the social commentary of the Italian neo-realism genre.
A ne(gr)o-realist film, if you like.
So that's all very commendable, but that doesn't mean it's interesting to watch. You might as well take a walk down the street and people-watch for a bit. There's a couple of striking moments and it's obviously a heartfelt project, but I confess I found it all a bit dull. It was a student project, after all - everybody knows they are dull as dishwater. Ironically, the best thing about the movie is the reason it could not be seen for over 30 years. Burnett had put together a fabulous soundtrack to accompany his photography, featuring the likes of Dinah Washington, Earth Wind & Fire and Louis Armstrong, but he couldn't afford the copyright for the songs, so the film remained in obscurity. In 2007, the music rights were secured, the film quality improved and it was finally released to great critical acclaim. The public ignored it, however, and for once I couldn't really blame them. It may be a significant film, but it's not a great one to watch.
 
I don't trust you. What do others think? I am the black sheep of the critic's family in my views on this film. Much love for it amongst film critics for its bravery in bucking conventional film-making approaches, although perhaps its long duration as an 'unseen classic' contributed to the gushing reception? You can read about the film at its dedicated website and read some analysis here and here. Truth be told, these articles are more interesting than the actual film.

Anything else I should know? I killed a sheep once. Hit it with my car. Had to drive over two fields to get it too. Felt baaad afterwards.

What does the Fonz think? I'm not l-ovine it.




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