Killer of Sheep at Ron Robinson

February 20, 2015

Killer of Sheep
Cast: Henry Gayle Sanders, Kaycee Moore
Director: Charles Burnett
Rating: Not rated; contains strong language, disturbing slaughterhouse images
Running time: 83 minutes

Killer of Sheep, Charle’s Burnett’s neo-realistic masterpiece from 1977 that was held in limbo for 30 years — it finally got a theatrical release in 2007, the same year it played the inaugural Little Rock Film Festival — will be screened at the Ron Robinson Theater at 7 p.m. Saturday, February, 21.

Killer of Sheep is a startling work, a black-and-white masterpiece that could be taken for a documentary. It is anchored by the stoic, unmannered performance of Henry Gayle Sanders as Stan, the titular slaughterhouse worker and head of a poor, earnest family struggling to keep it together in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. While Burnett’s story of life in the ghetto is scripted, it is low-key and almost completely free of the drama (and the fierceness) of, say, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. This is a Watts without riots, where radical chic politics are a luxury no working person can afford.

Angela (played by Angela Burnett) and neighborhood boy in the film Killer of Sheep

Angela (played by Angela Burnett) and neighborhood boy in the film Killer of Sheep

Stan and his nameless wife (Kaycee Moore) are exhausted but not embittered by the demands of their thwarted lives; while they are intelligent and sensitive, they have no recourse but to keep pushing forward. They have children, they have the odd moment of fun, but mostly they are trapped in a grinding cycle of poverty that allows little room for dreams.

Burnett, who was born in Vicksburg, Miss., in 1944, and moved to Los Angeles as a child made the film as his UCLA film school master thesis and never expected it to be seen outside the film program. When I talked to him a few years ago he wasn’t “sure why the film has gotten the response that it has.”

“[It] was a student project made at a time when there wasn’t a means to distribute a film like this,” Burnett said. “I thought it would have a specialized audience that was interested in improving life in the black community. The film was made for people who have the means to ask themselves how can one improve [the character] Stan’s situation? I’m certainly pleased that there is an audience for the film and it has gotten good reviews. I would be feeling bad if it had gotten bad reviews. I don’t know if people who review the film understand why the film was made. I would hope that the reviewer would talk in terms of how it relates to other films that deal with social issues.”

Burnett may be as anonymous a major artist as this country has ever produced. He is the epitome of the independent film director, staying under the radar for his entire career despite creating another genuinely great film 1990’s To Sleep With Anger — and one should-have-been blockbuster, 1994’s The Glass Shield.Yet despite the public acclaim of critics and fellow filmmakers, Burnett has never made much of an impression on the larger public. While younger black filmmakers like Spike Lee and John Singleton rode to prominence, in part by exploiting the more sensational aspects of the black American experience, Burnett has always presented a sober, balanced alternate view of the black working class. He has been showered with honors over the years — including one of the MacArthur Foundation genius grants and the Library of Congress’ selection of Killer of Sheep for its National Film Registry — but Burnett have never achieved a high profile. He churns out documentaries and television films and the occasional independent feature — most of which, like Killer of Sheep, are deeply concerned with the evolution of the black middle-class family.

Influenced more by Italian neorealists and French directors like Robert Bresson and Jean Renoir — particularly The Rules of the Game (1939) and The Grand Illusion (1937) — than the Hollywood movie brats who were riding high at the time. Still, Killer of Sheep does have some of the discursive, deeply felt ambience of Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces, a movie that can in some respects be seen as its photo negative image. Where Five Easy Pieces is about drifting and the abrogation of responsibility, Killer is about staying put and standing up — about what it means to be a man, or more precisely an adult, in a battering world that, at the end of the day, leaves you too tired to move.

Watching Killer of Sheep, on e may be struck by the pragmatism of the characters, the dignity of their day-to-day experience, the subtlety of the political subtext, which — given the times and the relative youth of the filmmaker — seems remarkable. These aren’t radicalized people; the community depicted seems very much aligned with Nixon’s silent majority. They’re concerned about the problems in front of them rather than revolution. I think all your movies are wonderfully subtle in this way; there’s a political component, but you seem to recognize the primacy of private life.

“Most of the people I grew up with were concerned about working to take care of their family and their responsibility,” Burnett said. “One was always conscious of one’s responsibility even though at times one failed. People had experienced the worst in life, racism and such, yet they never gave up. Their belief in God played a large part in keeping chaos from taking over. There was a strong belief in heaven and hell. The extended family concept played a big role. The family was a whole. I just remember people were always arguing about family issues more than anything.”

Some are likely to find KOS frustrating or even boring for its lack of dramatic conflict and narrative thrust. This is a film that doesn’t tell a story so much as paint a portrait. It was never intended to please casual moviegoers looking for a little escape with popcorn and air conditioning. It is a serious, powerful movie, an authentic American classic.

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