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Joshua van Biema

Bard High School Early College II, Junior

REVIEW | Killer of Sheep (1977) directed by Charles Burnett

Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1977) is just as much poetry as it is film. The application of neo-realistic techniques to African-American life in southern Los Angeles compels each of its scenes to hover onscreen like a stanza, and each of its shots like a line. Devoid of any traditional narrative, its lines and stanzas appear as though they could be assembled and reassembled in any number of ways and still yield the same tender yet haunting product. But there is significance to the sequence of Burnett’s powerful images. Above all other fundamental elements of filmmaking, the director makes brilliant use of editing to convey his somber message; those teetering on the margins of society live pre-determined, stagnant existences, and their only road to happiness (besides ignorance) is finding contentment in what few fruits this bitter life has to bear.

The succession of events in Killer of Sheep draws impressive parallels between the seemingly separate pictures that it paints to issue overarching statements about what it is to be black and poor in America. In order to fully appreciate this, one must first observe each vivid tableau individually before stepping back to make sense of Burnett’s network of artful comparisons.

Killer of Sheep, Angela Burnett (r.)

Take, for example, the most gruesome of the slaughterhouse scenes that are strategically interspersed throughout the film. As Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders) and his coworkers go about trussing the sheep upside-down and affixing their small, swaying bodies to a conveyer belt like coats on a rack, Walter Jacobs’ “Mean Old World” plays painfully in the background. The music stops short and the shot switches from a mutilated sheep head to that of a (temporarily) living one staring blankly into the camera.

This is no coincidence: Burnett has flipped the switch from death to life, but it simply doesn’t matter. No one in the audience is shocked, nor does anyone question how it happened. It could be the same sheep a couple hours earlier or a different one a few minutes later, but that makes no difference. The ruthless cycle of mortality repeats itself over and over again, and each sheep’s thoughts, bleats, and final moments blend in perfectly with all the others. It all takes place behind dirty, metal doors to arrive on dinner plates for diners who live miles away in the centers of bustling metropolises and couldn’t care less about the animals that have glutted their stomachs.

But the most elaborate transition of the entire work is the one that ends this highly unsettling scene. Stan herds the sheep and they start to run, turning into slim, shaggy blurs that jump excitably across the screen. A child’s voice is heard tiresomely counting numbers—“450, 451, 452…”—before Burnett abruptly shifts the viewer’s focus to reveal the speaker, a neighborhood friend of Stan’s older son. The boy is holding some sort of cutting utensil in his hand and continues to count sheep, so to speak, while the camera pans over to Stan’s son and another friend doing handstands against a wall. It is the wall of Stan’s house; they are on Stan’s porch.

The protagonist returns home, exhausted by his physically and mentally demanding job, only to be horrifyingly reminded of his unpleasant day at work: Two children are dangling face-down, their fragile frames shaking, their ribs poking out, and their clothes hanging off of them like sheared wool, and another is watching over them with a knife. Stan trudges slowly up the stairs, passively pushes down his son, causing the other boy to fall as well, and heads into the house.

Not a moment goes by when the main character isn’t preoccupied with death. He lives, breathes, and eats death; he even sees it in his own child, born to be no more than another sheep, to be butchered. Knowing his fate—knowing that he will die exactly where he is right now, that he will move nowhere—is what stops him from being able to make love to his wife, from connecting with other people on a profound and intimate level. He would obtain nothing and transcend nothing, but would simply make some friends in the sheepfold before his termination.

Few things change in Stan’s life, and thus there are few things that can bring a smile to his face. Although the movie ends, just as Dinah Washington’s poignant singing does, on an arguably promising note, it is a resigned, fatigued type of happiness, one that Stan falls back on momentarily because it is easier than despair. It is truly all he can do to take pleasure in getting some sleep, buying a motor for his car, and feeding his children, because that’s all he ever does and all he ever will do.