Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 27 March 2008
Source Milestone Film & Video DVD
Killer of Sheep begins with a boy and his father, the latter inches away from the face of his son, berating the boy for not defending his brother in a neighborhood fight. The brother is across the room, crying in his mother’s arms. “You are not a child anymore,” the father yells at the boy, between coughs. “You soon will be a goddamn man. Start learning what life is about now, son.” To drive home the urgency of this advice the boy’s mother slaps him across the face.
These characters don’t reappear in Killer of Sheep, but this prologue sets the stage, if not exactly the tone, for this film and for Burnett’s work as a whole. The consistent theme of Burnett’s career is family, especially the raising of children, here and elsewhere in his early work, under the constraints of urban poverty. His second feature, My Brother’s Wedding, offers a constant juxtaposition between two brothers, questioning how a shared upbringing has created their individual, seemingly contrary sets of values: one upwardly mobile and opportunistic, the other bitter and lacking in ambition. In his later masterwork, To Sleep with Anger, this theme of upbringing is even betrayed in the names of the characters, as a family frets over its now grown-up Baby Brother and then, in turn, over his own child, Sunny. Again and again, Burnett returns to the family unit - a husband and wife, a father and his daughter, siblings, cousins, grandparents - drawing and redrawing the lines of connection between relations within a closely knit community.
That this community is African-American and, in his earlier work, almost uniformly poor, is at least in part the reason that Burnett’s work has been largely overlooked in comparison to that of his contemporaries. His approach to his milieu has always been unflinching and idiosyncratic at times when exploitation has been more the order of the day: in the 1970s, Burnett’s films were too raw and unheroic to be blaxploitation; in the 1990s, too concerned with the growth of the black middle class to cash in on the craze for South Central thug life. Burnett thus resists inclusion in more than one generation of black filmmakers, but then nor is he at home among his immediate contemporaries of the New Hollywood of the 1970s. The differences between his work and that of Spielberg may be fairly obvious, but even comparisons with the more unusual directors of that generation - David Lynch, for example, or Terrence Malick - suggest a philosophy of making films that is entirely distinct. This fact in itself measures the distance between the AFI in Beverly Hills and UCLA in Westwood, where Burnett studied alongside such filmmakers as Julie Dash and Haile Gerima.
In contrast to those films of the more mainstream or otherwise more successful American filmmakers of 1970s, Burnett’s works often seem less like auteurist proclamations and more like a form of community organizing, wrangling friends, family, neighborhood kids, and whatever unrehearsed local textures and happenstance that passes in front of his camera. There is a sense of on-the-fly team spirit about most of Burnett’s films, as in his short film When It Rains, wherein a jazz musician improvises ways of raising his friend’s rent money on New Year’s Day. All of the characters in Killer of Sheep, save for the husband and wife protagonists, are played by non-professional actors from the South Los Angeles area of Watts in which the film takes place. This suggests a certain neighborhood involvement in filmmaking that is less in the service of an individual artistic temperament and functions more as a way of sharing stories, faces, and experiences in order to benefit a group of people, a family, a community.
For all this participation, however, Burnett’s films are far from impersonal. Indeed, their intimacy is one of their most striking features, made all the more striking by the fact that the films’ subjects - the disenfranchised, the marginalized - are so seldom beheld so directly, so empathically. In the prologue to Killer of Sheep, we are right in the characters faces, sensing the boy’s embarrassment and shame, the mother’s disappointment, the father’s frustration with the cruelty of life and his son’s slowness to recognize it. And throughout the film, during any of its many melees of children, kicking dirt, throwing rocks, and leaping precariously over rooftops, Burnett’s camera will linger on a single child, clutching his arm and crying, a private, stolen moment that expresses an often well-concealed (or willfully ignored) vulnerability.
Stan, the film’s protagonist and titular slaughterhouse factotum, conceals his own emotions behind a mask of apathy and exhaustion, his baggy eyes drooping in the manner as the hound-dog mask worn by his young daughter. Crouched on the floor mending kitchen linoleum to while away sleepless nights, Stan has the impenetrable veneer of lower-class drudgery, a wall of suppressed anxiety and thwarted desire that lifts only occasionally for his daughter’s affection or for a distant reminiscence of sensual pleasure. As Stan drinks a late-night cup of tea with a friend, the heat of the cracked teacup against his face calls to mind the warmth of a woman’s face near his. But Stan’s own relationship with his wife has run cold, his insomnia, anxiety, and sense of helplessness in the face of an indifferent world draining him of the energy even to maintain this closest of relationships.
Throughout Killer of Sheep, isolated in medium close-ups and long shots as he hoses down the killing floor or ambulates his kitchen, Henry Sanders portrays Stan as a man at odds with himself and those around him. Not violently so—unlike the small-time hoods and hustlers that wander through his life and his neighborhood, ripping off TVs and getting into fights, Stan shows no obvious predilection for hostility. “Why you always want to hurt somebody?” Stan’s wife asks a shady acquaintance who is trying to enlist Stan in a “job” of some nefarious kind. “Who me?” the hood asks. “That’s the way nature is. I mean, an animal has his teeth; and a man has his fists. That’s the way I was brought up, god damn me.” This is the echo of the prologue’s father-son advice, but Stan cannot bring himself to adopt this ethos as his own, much less impart it to his own son, whom Stan largely ignores. Stan, Jr., meanwhile, is glimpsed only occasionally, darting in and out of the family bungalow with his BB gun to play amongst the local urban decay with his friends.
In all cases, Stan resists the comfort of connection with those around him. Wordlessly, he seems to ask what good these connections will do him, as his attempt to buy a used engine with his friend Gene ends in futility, a waste of his time and money. Stan turns in on himself, brushing off his wife’s invitation to come to bed in favor of working on the linoleum. Frustrated as he is in his isolation, Stan even protests the very designation of poverty - “I ain’t poor! I give away things to the Salvation Army!” - echoing Georg Simmel’s observation that poverty is a classification conferred onto those in society who accept society’s charity. Stan, rejecting this very classification, shirks his very place in the world and in the struggling community around him, opting to exist as not only déclassé but without class entirely, without status or profile. “I’m working myself into my own hell,” Stan confides to his friend. “I close my eyes, can’t get no sleep at night, no peace of mind.” (“Why don’t you kill yourself?” his friend suggests. “You’ll be a lot happier.”)
As counterpoint to the life of futility and alienation in the community and at home, Burnett’s film offers long montages of Stan’s work at the slaughterhouse - hosing down surfaces and herding lambs to the slaughter - and these are often intercut with shots of the children of Watts as they hammer on cinder blocks, lob rocks and insults at each other, and frolic around railyards and bombed-out buildings. These sequences are shot with a grainy, stark, high-contrast 16mm stock and scored with a bold sound-collage of music and diegetic noise: children singing, dogs barking, and classical and popular music. This musical soundtrack - featuring works by Louis Armstrong, Little Walter, Scott Joplin, Arthur Crudup, Earth, Wind, and Fire, and, of course, Dinah Washington - scores the film with a specifically African-American sound palette, and it often ironically frames what’s on-screen, as when Paul Robeson intones “What America Is to Me” to images of young black boys scrambling in a junkyard.1 As Robeson’s basso sings of “children in the playground,” Burnett cuts to an image of a white man wiping off meathooks at the slaughterhouse, a blunt indication that at least part of Stan’s anxiety and lack of peace of mind grows out of a realization that his role as patriarch serves in part to lead his own children, like sheep, to an inevitable conclusion.
Burnett handles the motif of the slaughterhouse in Killer of Sheep with a delicacy and discretion throughout. There is always the hint of direct symbolism, as when Burnett cuts from shots of sheep hanging from their heels to boys standing on their heads, but he is nonetheless able to couch this metaphorical relationship in a lyricism imparted by both the soundtrack and the dreamlike haziness of the image. Stan’s job is undoubtedly a source of misery to him, but in the film, these montages are a curious space of liberation, an almost meditative respite from the grim realities of Stan’s home and neighborhood life. Indeed, like the brief tracking shots that Burnett sparingly deploys throughout - through the railyard, down an alleyway, up the incline of a neighborhood street - these moments are infused with a sense of calm, of movement, even of possibility. If this sense of lyricism, itself enriched over three decades of retrospection, seems grafted onto a situation that, to Stan and those around him, must seem hopeless, perhaps it is Burnett’s intention to show that filmmaking - especially as a collaborative, communal project - can infuse everyday life, its drudgery and its hardship, with poetry, with peace of mind. These moments may be fleeting, but as Dinah Washington croons on the soundtrack:
What good is love that no one shares?
And if my life is like the dust
that hides the glow of a rose,
what good am I heaven only knows.
Thus, almost in spite of what its central metaphor suggests about life in the community of Watts in the mid-1970s, Killer of Sheep ends with hope: a weekend trip to the racetrack is aborted, but that nonetheless allows Stan and his family to spend the day at home. A friend stops by to announce that she’s going to have a baby. Stan, Jr., is off playing with his neighborhood friends, and Stan smiles at his wife and gently touches her knee, watching the rain on a Sunday afternoon. Soon, he’ll be back at work.
1 The music is also part of the reason the film has been so difficult to see for so long, as Burnett didn’t bother to secure music rights for _Killer of Sheep_, which he produced as his MFA thesis film for UCLA. It took Dennis Doros and his company, Milestone Film & Video, some $150,000 and the better part of a decade to secure the rights for this music to present the film in its present condition, a feat of rare heroism in DVD advocacy, especially for a film shot in the early 1970s for less than $10,000. ↩