For three decades, Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep (Milestone Films) has been one of those legendary films passed around like a secret jewel among moviegoers lucky enough to have seen it. Made in 1977 as a thesis project at the UCLA film school and never commercially released because of legal battles over music rights, Killer of Sheep was declared a national treasure by the Library of Congress in 1990 and has been named one of the 100 essential films of all time by the National Society of Film Critics. Yet it's been shown only at small festivals, on the college circuit, and on low-quality bootlegs. Shot over a year of weekends in the Los Angeles ghetto of Watts on 16mm black-and-white film, Burnett's masterwork has now been restored and transferred to 35mm and is enjoying a limited release in theaters before coming out on DVD in the fall.
Seeing Killer of Sheep is an experience as simple and indelible as watching Bresson's Pickpocket or De Sica's Bicycle Thieves for the first time. Despite its aesthetic debt to European art cinema, Burnett's film is quintessentially American in its tone and subject matter. If there's any modern-day equivalent for the movie's matter-of-fact gaze on the ravages of urban poverty, it's the HBO series The Wire.
Killer of Sheep is a collection of brief vignettes which are so loosely connected that it feels at times like you're watching a non-narrative film. But each of these moving parts has a necessary function, and when the movie's brief 87 minutes are up, you want to watch the whole thing over again to see how they all fit together.
From the lyrical opening images—a man slaps a boy in the face, eliciting tears; children throw rocks and roughhouse on the train tracks—a story slowly takes shape. A sad-faced family man named Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders) works in a slaughterhouse, herding sheep onto the killing floor and hanging them on hooks, then hosing down the blood and carting the guts away in wheelbarrows. Understandably enough, the sensitive Stan has become a numbed-out shell, incapable of sleeping, playing with his children, or having sex with his wife (Kaycee Moore). Describing his insomnia to a visiting friend, Stan sums it up grimly: "I'm just workin' myself into my own hell." Yet Stan's proud to have a job at all—as he points out to another friend, he's not so poor that he can't afford to give things to the Salvation Army once in a while.
Things happen to Stan, but slowly, lazily, the way things happen in a place where not much changes. Two fast-talking types named Smoke and Scooter pay a visit in an attempt to persuade him to go in with them on a plot to kill a man. It's a straightforward business proposition that leads to an angry debate on the nature of good and evil when Stan's wife appears on the porch to chew out the visitors. Later, Stan's expansive friend, Bracy (Charles Bracy), talks him into a less dangerous, but equally ill-starred, plan to buy a car engine from a ne'er-do-well friend. Stan and his wife dance to a Dinah Washington record next to an open window and join friends to go bet on a horse race. All the while, the neighborhood children wander in and out of frame, tormenting and teasing one another, singing Earth, Wind & Fire songs to their dolls, and in a scene of astonishing beauty, jumping from rooftop to rooftop just over the grown-ups' heads, like birds learning to fly.
The mood of Killer of Sheep is austere but not somber. Many scenes, including the central set piece involving Stan and Bracy's purchase of the engine, are wry and funny. The soundtrack is a history of black American music: everything from jazz to ragtime to urban blues, presented in choppy fragments that seem almost like messages from the characters' internal worlds.
In the bleak yet strangely exhilarating closing scene, sheep on their way to slaughter file through a narrow metal gate as Dinah Washington sings "This Bitter Earth." The choice is the only substantial change from the 1977 version of the film; Burnett originally used Washington's version of "Unforgettable" but was unable to secure the rights to leave it on the soundtrack. But the substitution works beautifully with the film's theme, as "This Bitter Earth" is precariously balanced between hope and despair. I saw Killer of Sheep in scratchy 16mm at a university museum screening more than 10 years ago, and it's remained in my memory ever since, not only as a great film about the African-American experience but as a great film, period. It's a joy to realize, all these years later, that I wasn't overrating it at all.