Filmmaker Firsts: Charles Burnett

#28: Killer of Sheep (1978) – dir. Charles Burnett

Charles Burnett’s debut feature film, made in Los Angeles between 1972 and 1975, is a landmark in the history of black cinema and one of the classics of the “L.A. Rebellion” that Burnett was a part of. While Sheep does not have a traditional narrative arc for its characters or specific stakes/goals for them, it does tell the day-to-day story of the residents of the Watts neighborhood with beautiful cinematography by Burnett himself, seeming like a documentary with its largely nonprofessional cast and on-location footage of “Mom and Pop” stores and dusty stretches of barren land.

The main character, Stan (Henry G. Sanders, who recently appeared in Best Picture Oscar nominees Whiplash and Selma), struggles against his malaise, a combination of job-related fatigue – he works in a mutton slaughterhouse, hence the title – and insomnia that has rendered him unable to emotionally engage with, or even have any conversations with, his wife (Kaycee Moore). In perhaps the film’s most memorable scene, the couple dances to “This Bitter Earth.” A lot of people have described the moment as “lovely” or “beautiful,” but if anything it’s really quite sad since it shows the disconnect between the lonesome wife in need of affection and the distant husband who cannot reciprocate.

Indeed it is Kaycee Moore who gives the film’s best performance. Even though Burnett does not give her character a name (she is listed as “Stan’s wife” in the end credits), Moore plays her role with great dignity.

Another iconic image from the film is seen in the mask worn by Stan’s young daughter. We see this grotesque, jowly disguise before we see the little girl’s actual face and it also prevents us from seeing her reactions to the people around her. (No one is surprised to see this canine head on the girl’s body, so it may be something the character wears often enough that it has become normal.) It is possible that the girl wears this costume because she wants attention from her parents, who are always so visibly unhappy at home.

The scenes of sheep being herded toward death in the factory are distressing, particularly for those of us who feel significantly uncomfortable at the sight of animals being killed. (I will never see the Jean Gabin film A Pig Across Paris again for exactly that reason.) Whether you read the sheep scenes as metaphoric for Stan’s own life or not – “The Man” controlling and ultimately destroying the masses, who are all forced to do what they are told even if that separates them from the ones they love – there is still something undeniably moving about Burnett’s shots of these wooly innocents being pushed through the yards and behind steel barriers, struggling against the closing doors. As Dinah Washington sings “while a voice within me cries…” (repetition of the song heard earlier) at the same time that you hear the ovine bleats, you feel for the defenseless creatures.


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