Life Is Sheep: Burnett?s debut emphasizes realism.

Sign up for our free newsletter

A man who butchers for a living is slowly murdered by life in Killer of Sheep, the 1977 debut of African-American writer-director Charles Burnett. Shot as naturalistically as possible in South Central Los Angeles, this everyday anti-drama is a crucial work in the history of American independent film and should be seen by anyone with an interest in that genre’s development. Yet it’s not a great movie, and its rerelease is something of a bittersweet footnote: Burnett has been able to make but five features and only one masterpiece, 1990’s To Sleep With Anger, in a career that’s proved both frustrating and frustrated. The world Burnett depicts is clannish, insular, and predicated on violence. Killer of Sheep opens, tellingly, with a scene in which a father yells at his son for not fighting to protect his brother. Although the movie’s harshest scenes transpire in the slaughterhouse where Stan (Henry G. Sanders) works, this is a neighborhood of riots and gangs. When two guys come around looking for help with a murder, Stan’s wife (Kaycee Moore) runs them off, asking “Why do you always want to hurt somebody?” It’s a question that haunts the film, whose sweet and funny moments are always shadowed by conflict. Burnett frequently observes kids at play, and their games look about as innocent as Marine basic training. Outside of work, Stan is not the violent type. He’s too busy brooding to do much of anything else, including sleep or make love to his neglected wife. If he does get involved in a project, such as helping a friend fix his immobile car, the effort is invariably in vain. He clearly hates his job, but when offered an alternative by a liquor-store owner, the only white person with a speaking part, he’s noncommittal. While Killer of Sheep adopts the tactics of Italian neorealism—­nonprofessional actors, real-world locations, black-and-white documentary-style images—Stan lives in his own film, one which might have been scripted by an underclass Samuel Beckett. For all its specificity of place, Killer of Sheep is not a bulletin from late-’70s South Central. In fact, it has a timelessness that’s signaled by its newsreel-style 16-mm cinematography and archival score. (One reason the film was restricted to the nonprofit circuit for decades was that Burnett didn’t clear the rights to the songs he chose.) The movie’s de facto musical theme is Dinah Washington’s “This Bitter Earth,” and Paul Robeson’s gospel epics and Elmore James’ blues are also heard. When the sound of the ’70s intrudes, in the form of Earth Wind & Fire, it’s the kids who are listening. The adults prefer the music, and customs, of the past. This is a theme that’s developed more explicitly in To Sleep With Anger, which depicts South Central as truly Southern; the film’s characters accept mysterious folkways that seem more Mississippi than California. Though they’re thematically linked, Killer of Sheep and To Sleep With Anger have one major difference: The latter uses trained actors. Burnett’s first feature suffers from readings that are not only stiff but also incompatible; while some of the performers sleepwalk, others shred their lines. Burnett is in control of everything except his actors, and the result is a film that looks true but too often sounds false.