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Killer of Sheep

Charles Burnett’s under-seen 1977 classic sets up the L.A. Rebellion

DIRECTED BY CHARLES BURNETT

In the short time since Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life debuted at Cannes in 2011, it’s become a habit to compare every new film about adolescents misbehaving and ambling through grass and rubble to Malick’s affecting portrait of his childhood. A more fruitful reference point, though, might be Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, which has justly been canonized as a key document in American and independent filmmaking even as it continues to be underrated as a powerful film in its own right, as accomplished as any feature debut since.

Submitted as Burnett’s M.F.A. thesis in 1977, the film didn’t get a significant release until decades later, because of problems securing the rights to its rich soundtrack. When it made its way to DVD in 2007, the film was able to move beyond academia—which had already latched onto it as one of the major expressions of a new wave of politically-engaged African American filmmaking coming out of the UCLA campus—and into the public eye.

Killer of Sheep is a rarity. It’s an important text that is also beautiful, mired in the poetic stuff of everyday life: a woman admiring her reflection in a frying pan, or a child singing blissfully off-key to a pop song. 

Filmed on location in Watts, Los Angeles on a budget of less than $10,000, the film consists of a number of vignettes taken from the work and family life of Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders). Stan is an exhausted slaughterhouse worker who spends his rare moments of free time instilling lessons in his two children, slow-dancing with his wife, and seeking out a car engine to prove his social bona fides in the neighborhood. (His family can’t be poor, he tells a friend, with bruised pride in his voice, if they can afford to give to the Salvation Army.)

Burnett’s balance between ethnography and everyday lyricism is masterful. Adapting elements of Italian neorealism—among them, an attention to non-professional actors and location shooting—to this geographically particular Black experience, Burnett achieves a representational milestone marred only by the film’s spotty release history. Rarely has a film so gracefully pivoted between the allegorical and the observational. It’s inconceivable to think of the film ending with anything but Dinah Washington’s “This Bitter Earth” playing in the background, but Burnett’s amazing achievement lies in how the song’s bittersweetness permeates every shot.

Saturday’s screening is introduced by Toronto International Film Festival artistic director Cameron Bailey. The film screens as part of TIFF Cinematheque’s retrospective on the L.A. Rebellion.

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