In Watts, Los Angeles during the 1970s reminders of the Watts Riots are everywhere as children play outside. Their playground does not consist of slides or swings, but decrepit buildings and rocks which they pelt at each other. As the children frolic in this urban wasteland, Paul Robeson’s song “The House I Live In” plays in the background with the haunting lyrics “what is America to me?” It is a somber but powerful moment in Killer of Sheep that reminds the audience that the American dream does not apply to all Americans.
Charles Burnett’s film Killer of Sheep may have started out as a master thesis for his UCLA film school, but it ended up being a film that tapped into a side of African-American life rarely captured on film. Made with only a $10,000 budget, the film was a stark alternative to the blaxploitation genre that was prevalent at the time of its release. While blaxploitation films sold the fantasy of African-American power, Burnett’s film offered an honest and thought provoking look at what life was really like for many African-Americans.
The film centers around Stan (Henry Gale Sanders), a man whose job working at a slaughterhouse is slowly starting to take its toll at home. Each passing day finds Stan becoming more emotionally distant from his wife (Kaycee Moore) and two kids. Unable to sleep most nights, Stan keeps himself busy doing odd jobs around the house such as putting down linoleum and fixing the sink. Stan’s increasing detachment begins to wear down his wife who repeatedly tries, unsuccessfully mind you, to instigate some form of intimacy between them.
Stan represents the hopelessness of many of the citizens living in Watts. He works hard at a job that is crushing his spirit and ultimately has nothing to show for it. At one point Stan is insulted when a friend remarks about how poor Stan’s family is. In Stan’s mind the fact that his family gave to the Salvation Army is proof that he is more middle class than poor. Though Stan may view having a home as being middle class, the surroundings he lives in tells a different story.
Burnett frequently reminds the audience of the harsh realities of the world in which Stan inhabits. The film depicts a world where incidents of both theft and domestic violence are viewed by children and neighbours as just another day in the neighbourhood. Even a simple family trip to the race track is sullied by a flat tire and the lack of a spare. At one point two local criminals try to recruit Stan into helping them commit a murder. Stan’s job at the slaughterhouse makes him a perfect candidate in their eyes as he sees death daily. Though Stan’s wife chastises the men for approaching her husband, they do not view murder as a crime but as a symbol of manhood. It is a bleak and truthful examination of a society with no heroes or hope.
Charles Burnett’s film does not offer any solutions which may turn off some viewers. In fact, Burnett does not provide the audience with any assistance at all. He merely places them right in the middle of Stan’s life and forces them to observe every detail. Burnett’s film technique, including using amateur actors from Watts, has been compared to those of the Italian neorealism movement. When viewing the film it is easy to see were the comparisons come from. The film carries the same bleak resonance that can be found in great Italian neorealism films such as Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thieves. There is even a moment in Killer of Sheep, in which Stan has to work hard to buy a new engine only to watch it be damaged beyond repair, echoing the same sense of disappointment that Antonio felt when he lost his bicycle in De Sica’s film.
Despite being one of the first films to be inducted into the Library of Congress list of American films worthy of preservation, Killer of Sheep is still relatively unknown to most cinephiles. The film does not glorify poverty, but provides an honest portrayal of it. Men like Stan try their best to keep their families on the right track, even if it means killing themselves emotionally. It is an unflinching look at the vicious cycle of poverty for not just the community in Watts, but for several African-Americans living in the slums. Killer of Sheep is an outstanding and important work that cinema lovers should seek out at all cost.