The flip to blaxploitation

Thirty years on Charles Burnett's working-class portrait still resonates

Written and directed by Charles Burnett. Starring Henry G. Sanders, Kaycee Moore, Charles Bracy and Angela Burnett. Running time is 83 minutes.

Killer of Sheep is the cinematic equivalent of a religious relic, worshiped by critics who saw the film on its rare public appearances, and declared it a revelatory experience. Thirty years after it was made, writer/director Charles Burnett’s low-budget debut has been restored, and is in theaters, which means that the film can finally be judged on its own merits.

Shot on 16mm black and white film in a naturalistic style that recalls the Italian neorealists, Killer of Sheep is a fascinating time capsule. Burnett captured a very specific time and place: Watts as a working-class enclave, in the days before drugs, hip hop and gang violence came to define life in this, and other predominantly black Los Angeles neighborhoods.

Even though Burnett (To Sleep with Anger, The Glass Shield) shows moments of optimism, he doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities faced every day by Stan (Henry Gale Sanders), who works in a slaughterhouse, his wife (Kaycee Moore), and their two kids. That Killer of Sheep focuses on a traditional nuclear family made it radically different from the blaxploitation movies of the 1970s, which portrayed urban life as driven by crime.

The only hint that this world exists comes when two flamboyantly dressed thugs approach the soft-spoken Stan to join them on a potentially deadly job. Stan gently declines, but his wife emphatically challenges their definition of manhood as based on violence. It’s an echo of the opening scene, where another father chastises and then slaps his young son for not fighting to protect his brother.

These scenes are incongruous in a film that eschews grand statements to focus on the futility engendered by poverty (the piecemeal struggle to restore an old car) and the moments of grace found in even the most barren landscape (boys turn an industrial lot into a vibrant playground).

Killer of Sheep has all the hallmarks – both good and bad – of a first feature. There’s a DIY determinism at work here that gives the film its bite, but there’s also the sense that Burnett is trying to distill a lifetime’s worth of experiences into a single story, and the result is an often scattershot and over-reaching narrative.

This is most vivid in the relationship between Stan and his unnamed wife. Dancing to Dinah Washington’s searing “This Bitter Earth,” she clings to him, trying to elicit any response from her emotionally and physically distant husband. (The carefully chosen blues, jazz and soul songs are key to Killer of Sheep, and not having music rights kept it out of circulation.)

The song plays again when Stan is at work — the film’s title is not metaphoric, the scenes of sheep to slaughter are graphic — concluding that his job has made him numb. This simplistic explanation is out of step with the rest of this subtle, nuanced film. Burnett effectively shows that it doesn’t take a Hurricane Katrina to crush someone trying to live the best they can, just the deluge of a thousand daily drops.

Killer of Sheep kick starts the fall season at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237. It shows at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 6, Friday and Saturday, Sept. 7-8, at 7 and 9:30 p.m., and on Sunday, Sept. 9 at 7 p.m.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].

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