Writer/director Charles Burnett vividly captures the essence of inner-city African-American life in 1970s’ South Central Los Angeles in the re-release of his independent classic, “Killer of Sheep.”
Told through the eyes of Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), he is a proud man who just can’t seem to find any semblance of happiness. He performs menial tasks at home during the day and works at a slaughterhouse. He lives with his wife and several small children in what could best be described as abject poverty. It is only in quiet moments, the touch of a coffee cup to his face or observing his daughter, that Stan even manages a small smile.
His unnamed frustrated wife (Kaycee Moore) tries to tries her best to comfort him only to repeatedly be turned away. It’s not that Stan doesn’t love her, it appears that he has lost the capacity and ability to feel affection.
Proud and content, Stan is secure with his station in life. When a couple associates try to talk him into participating in their criminal enterprise, as bad as Stan could use the money, he turns them down. Later in the film, Stan tells a friend that “he’s not poor, he gives things away to the Salvation Army and you can’t do that if you’re poor.”
Burnett’s film feels so authentic that in many scenes it doesn’t appear that the performers are acting, but are simply participating in a documentary. He does an excellent job of conveying the sense of normalcy and utter hopeless with his black and white photography and stirringly soulful score featuring Paul Robeson, Dinah Washington’s passionately moving, “This Bitter Earth” and Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Reasons.” The music is largely responsible for the film never receiving distribution because the songs were too expensive. Made for $10,000 that Burnett received in grants, what it lacks in production values, it compensates by instilling a fierce sense of soul and pride.
Burnett uses the children in the film to balance out the main characters, showing them gleefully playing almost ignorant to the fact that their surroundings are bleak and full of despair. It is through them that film offers the audience hope.
Much like 1964’s “Nothing But A Man” and Spike Lee’s 1986 debut, “She’s Gotta Have It,” “Killer of Sheep” is raw, gritty, uncompromising and absolutely moving. The saying goes that “cream always rises to the top.” It may have taken 30 years, but another generation can now view Burnett’s well-deserved “Killer” classic.