Killer of Sheep

"Killer of Sheep" - Charles Burnett's masterpiece

By Brooks Robards - October 11, 2007

Films the caliber of "Killer of Sheep" don't come around very often. But Charles Burnett's masterpiece will play at Vineyard Haven's Katharine Cornell Theatre on Saturday, October 13, thanks to the Martha's Vineyard Film Society.

Shot in Watts during the 70s when Mr. Burnett was still a 33-year-old graduate student in film at UCLA, "Killer of Sheep" had its theatrical release only this year. Release took so long because the director was unable to pay for the rights to the soundtrack music, featuring African-American greats like Etta James and Dinah Washington. Music, images, editing -- all are worth waiting for.

This black-and-white film about daily life in one of Los Angeles's poorest and most violence-ridden black ghettoes will break your heart with its realism, awe you with the strength of its central characters and their capacity to prevail despite the harshness of their lives. "Killer of Sheep" fractures the media myth-making of African-American culture as drug- and crime-ridden.

Mr. Burnett eschews the conventions of filmmaking that allow an audience to roll along a well-marked narrative highway. Instead, he sets up his camera like an unblinking eye. It rarely moves. Then he travels from scene to scene through a series of at first disorienting jump cuts. Once the audience gets used to his method, it begins to take on the elegance and structural power of poetic stanzas.

"Killer of Sheep" opens to music and a black screen. Then a boy's face appears in extreme close-up, with his father loudly dressing him down for not protecting his younger brother. The boy's face and the father's diatribe speak volumes and are punctuated by a slap from his mother. The economy of this sequence makes it both breathtaking and enigmatic.

The way the film connects seemingly unrelated scenes becomes clear in the next vignette, where another boy peeks from behind a board, being peppered by rocks this time, instead of words. As is often the case, the initial image is arresting, and once the camera reveals the larger context, the scene begins to make sense in unexpected ways. Neighborhood boys are playing a rock-throwing game, deftly followed by Burnett's camera through an injury to a race to a passing train for more rock-throwing, then an aside to one of the boys watching two men make off with a stolen TV set. None of the sequences add up in ordinary ways. But they resonate with the happenstance nature of reality.

Burnett has often been compared to the Italian neo-realists, and he shares the genius of Fellini, who started as a neo-realist, in discovering the visually unique within the ordinary. The audience finds its way into the heart of the film through the lives of Stan (played by Henry Gale Sanders), his nameless wife (played by Kaycee Moore), their son Stan Jr. and daughter Angela. The characters come to the audience awash in physicality -- Stan with his bare, muscular back at work under the sink; his wife through her primping and false eyelashes.

Stan works in an abattoir, and the film takes the audience into his workplace over and over again. We see the tools of the trade: knives, meat hooks, tables, washing stations. We watch the placid-eyed faces of the sheep, their rounded bodies, their pelts slipping off, the smooth muscles of their hanging carcasses - all in a day's work. Such scenes are sandwiched between episodes in Stan's life, the neighborhood or the children who hang out there.

One particularly striking image shows little Angela wearing a rubber dog mask. She simply stands around in the kitchen or outside like a bizarre totem, while those who encounter her react. In another arresting sequence, a group of kids jump from one flat rooftop to another. Burnett shoots the scene from underneath the jumpers, capturing the children's carefree but perilous exuberance.

The soundtrack music - whether jazz, blues, pop music or the operatic bass-baritone of Paul Robeson - provides commentary on each of the sequences it counterpoints. Most haunting of all are the recurring lyrics of "This Bitter Earth," sung by Dinah Washington. The words go, "This bitter earth, What fruit it bears, What good is love that no one shares... What good am I, Only heaven knows."

While this tune plays, the camera shows Stan slow dancing with his wife until he walks away, dashing her hopes for a deeper connection. At the end of "Killer of Sheep," "This Bitter Earth" plays again: "I'm sure someone May answer my call, And this bitter earth May not be so bitter after all." These are good people, struggling against enormous odds, presented fully in their sorrow, oppression and strength.

"Killer of Sheep," Saturday, Oct. 13, 7:30 pm, Katharine Cornell Theatre, Spring Street, Vineyard Haven. Doors open at 7 p.m. $8; $5 for film society members. For more information, call 774-392-2972.

Brooks Robards is a contributing writer to The Times.