A young man bends down to tie his shoe as his friends attempt to budge an abandoned train car in a yard near Watts. (Film Still: screentrek.com)

Film Review: Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep

A UCLA film student’s master of fine arts thesis project. From 1977.

Killer of Sheep is the magnum opus of little known yet critically acclaimed director Charles Burnett. Although completed in 1977, music rights for the film couldn't be cleared at the time and it didn't receive a proper commercial release for 30 years. With financial support from filmmaker Steven Soderbergh, Milestone Films and the UCLA Film and Television Archive finally released it in 2007. It was one of the most critically acclaimed films of that year.

Killer of Sheep takes place in mid-1970s Los Angeles and focuses on Stan (Henry G. Sanders), an overworked and desensitized slaughterhouse employee in the Watts ghetto. Disillusioned, he struggles to find meaning and affect change in a life from which he feels increasingly detached. He struggles to support a wife (Kaycee Moore) and children (Jack Drummond and Angela Burnett) both financially and emotionally.

Each scene in the film is a beautifully depicted glimpse of the mundane, or an attempt on the part of the characters to make the best of the mundane. Children ride oversized bicycles along train tracks. They throw rocks at passing trains. They wrestle in the dirt. Stan fails miserably at an attempt to buy a car engine. He stoically rejects the advances of a white woman. He considers joining some of his shadier acquaintances in a criminal endeavour. In the end, he walks away from a slow dance with his wife, his back tense.

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Milestone Cinematheque Film Poster

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Theatrical Trailer

The film is reminiscent of Italian Neorealist films such as Vittorio de Sica's The Bicycle Thief. American filmmaker and novelist Michael Tolkin has stated that "if Killer of Sheep were an Italian film from 1953, we would have every scene memorized."

Killer of Sheep features unknown actors and cost roughly $10,000 dollars to make. It focuses on economic and moral hardship in everyday life. The narrative is sparse and the feel of the film is borderline documentary. Don't expect anything gaudy - it was shot using 16mm black and white film and employs no special effects.

In Dana Stevens' 2007 critique of Killer of Sheep for Slate.com, she says, "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." 

She's right. Although considerably slower paced, Killer of Sheep, like The Wire, blends dramatic tension, humour and monotony in a stark depiction of the ongoing urban African-American struggle. It's a calm meditation that wrapped up the blaxploitation era.

The film stars Henry G. Sanders, Kaycee Moore and Charles Bracy. None of them have exactly broken out into the spotlight since. Sanders appeared most recently on a 2011 episode of The Mentalist. Moore and Bracy have acted sparingly since Killer of Sheep and haven't appeared in anything post-2000.

The film's integral soundtrack spans both genre and era, consisting of essential African-American music including Louis Armstrong's "West End Blues," Paul Robeson's "The House I Live In" and Dinah Washington's "This Bitter Earth."

Aspiring filmmakers, especially film students, should be inspired by Burnett's chef d'oeuvre. For the general public, Killer of Sheep may not be the most riveting film, but it's worth considering if you're looking for a calmer, more realistic alternative to the slew of upcoming Christmas blockbusters this holiday season.

Recent homages to Burnett

Yasiin Bey, better known as Mos Def, used a screenshot from the film for the cover of his 2009 album The Ecstatic.

Seattle hip-hop collective Shabazz Palaces' 2010 music video for "Belhaven Meridian," directed by Kahlil Joseph and shot on 35mm black and white film in Watts, is a direct homage to Killer of Sheep. Watch it below. (The video contains explicit language. The views expressed in it do not represent those of Unews.ca.)

Shabazz Palaces - Belhaven Meridian from WHAT MATTERS MOST on Vimeo.

This year, filmmaker and visual artist Jean-Pierre Caner created a video for master hip-hop producer J. Dilla's ‘Anti-American Graffiti' using clips from Killer of Sheep. Watch it below.

Anti-American Graffiti from Jean-Pierre Caner on Vimeo.

Killer of Sheep should be available at your local independent video shop. If not, you can keep with the times and download it. Or buy it, if you wish.

Comments on this story are now closed

I enjoyed this "Killer of Sheep" film review very much. The storyline of this movie is brilliant. Thanks for sharing trailers - these videos inspired me to watch "Killer of Sheep". :)

Posted by Kelly Thomas | Dec 10, 2021