Killer of Sheep
Directed by Charles Burnett
Released in 1977 (Theatrically in 2007)
Charles Burnett sees so much in life, but so few options in living. Brimming with the little details only the most discerning of artists can subtly capture, Killer of Sheep also offers little, if any, solutions to its characters’ many problems. Time and circumstance herd these men and women through narrow corridors, with sprints of liberating motion now and then, like those eponymous sheep. Killer of Sheep is one of the saddest films I have seen, a superlative all the more remarkable for how steadfastly it eschews histrionics and familiar tragic structure.
Stan (Henry Gale Sanders) is depressed. Passive voice could describe almost every scene of his, for he seems to have no control of his life. In Watts, Los Angeles, he works in a slaughterhouse killing sheep and cleaning up their blood. At home, his wife (Kaycee Moore) feels unloved and his children lack guidance. A white suburban mother would cringe at how these young boys play: throwing stones at one another, hanging under unmoving train cars, swinging wrenches like toys. One of the boys breaks into tears by the end of almost any encounter, whether he gets fistfuls of sand in his eyes or ridicule from girls in the street. He possesses too soft a disposition to make it on these mean streets.
So, too, does Stan. With nods to crime in his past, Killer of Sheep presents a wealth of opportunities, in an ostensibly short period of time, for Stan to seize. He could work in a liquor store, managed by a strong white woman, though he worries about the not infrequent hold-ups. He could fix a car with a motor he buys, except it breaks minutes after buying it because his so-called friend insists the very edge of a pickup truck’s flatbed is all the space it needs. He could work with two old criminal associates, whose slick leather jackets remind Stan that to dress nice demands bad things. He could just make a choice and get away and changes things for the better, except he cannot.
If Stan spends most of the film moping at his life’s failures, it is his wife who we, as an audience, latch onto as the story’s moral center. With Kaycee Moore’s beautiful, dignified looks (they recall Michelle Obama’s), the wife, who goes unnamed, bares the tolls of the poor hand her family has been dealt in the most cinematic terms. In a repeated medium shot portrait, Burnett lingers on her face as she verges on tears and strokes her undisciplined hair. In a daytime dance with her husband to the tune of Dinah Washington’s well-used “This Bitter Earth,” she struggles to salve the love between them. It appears to go well, with Stan swaying and allowing his wife to squeeze him, but any connection ruptures once the song ends and Stan bolts it for the door. For a man who has given up hope, even the beautiful things in life serve Stan as sexless obligations. For a woman who hasn’t, it tears his wife to pieces.
Shot in 16mm for Burnett’s UCLA thesis film, Killer of Sheep embraces its budgetary shortcomings as a means to tell its story further, in more subtle and atmospheric ways. In an early kitchen scene, refrigerator door slams and the clatter of glassware drown out the unanswered questions Stan’s wife lobs to him. Their pitiful ability to communicate with one another is tethered to the very acoustics of the room. Not long later, their daughter (Angela Burnett) sings Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Reasons” in an out-of-tune, albeit adorably passionate, register. In the room over, her mother applies make-up, in what is surely an attempt to doll up for her husband’s pleasure, and smiles at her child’s full-throated commitment to the music. Any number of thoughts pass her mind as she listens to her daughter’s scratchy voice — I didn’t know she loves that band ... Does she sing to be happy? ... If only we could afford her a musical education... — but we sense, too, that the artistry and innocence of this moment inspires her more than anything else.
Burnett returns to the slaughterhouse where Stan toils his days throughout the film, and it is there where he ends it. A long shot of sheep running up a bottlenecking dispatch midway through the film haunts a later shot, of Stan and his friend walking down an alleyway. Above them, boys jump between rooftops, or come close to flying. They are living the happiest days of their lives, whether they realize it or not. Stan does not envy his son’s youth or happiness. As the final scene discloses, Stan smiles at work — where he chains writhing sheep up to a conveyor belt seconds before a technician slits their throats. He’s not even the executioner; he’s more an everyday Charon, ferrying poor souls to their ends. And yet he smiles. The sin of poverty is not that it drowns its sufferers in filth but that it conditions them to expect nothing more. Killer of Sheep understands this. It leaves you devastated.