'Killer of Sheep': Its Time Has Come, So Flock to It

"Killer of Sheep," seldom seen though much acclaimed, casts a wistful glance at black life. (Milestone Films Photos)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 1, 2007

Believe the hype.

For 30 years, "Killer of Sheep" has been a legend in film circles, one of those films lionized by filmmakers and critics that next to no one has actually seen. Made by Charles Burnett as his MFA thesis film at UCLA in the early 1970s, "Killer of Sheep" never got a theatrical release, despite being hailed as one of the most assured filmmaking debuts in American history, and later being named by the Library of Congress as one of the first movies on its National Film Registry. (Burnett has gone on to have a modest but highly regarded career; his best known film is the 1990 drama "To Sleep With Anger.")

Over the years, "Killer of Sheep" has been shown here and there in museums and at festivals, from a tattered 16-millimeter print. With a soundtrack dominated by classics from George Gershwin, Paul Robeson, Etta James and Dinah Washington, the music rights have made a wide release prohibitively expensive. Until now. Through the good offices of archivists at UCLA and the cinematic saints at Milestone Films, "Killer of Sheep" can now finally be seen -- and heard -- in all its glory.

And what glory it is. Henry Gayle Sanders -- the only professional actor in the cast -- plays Stan, a slaughterhouse worker who, when we meet him, is suffering from insomnia, impotence and an overall sense of ennui. Married to a gorgeous, sympathetic wife (Kaycee Moore), with two cute kids, Stan is sleepwalking through his life in Los Angeles's working- class Watts neighborhood, hanging out with friends, trying to connect with his family, trying, perchance, to sleep. "Killer of Sheep" unfolds as a series of encounters that Burnett choreographs like little chamber pieces; in one unforgettable scene, Stan holds a dainty teacup to his cheek and compares its warmth to his wife's forehead while they're making love; in another, he and a pal make elaborate efforts to load a car engine onto the back of a truck, only to have it fall off when they start up a hill. In yet another, Stan and his wife wordlessly dance to Washington's "This Bitter Earth" until the beleaguered Stan, unable to go any further, breaks up the quietly sensuous pas de deux.

These sequences, each unforgettable, are punctuated by scenes of Stan's kids and their friends playing, fighting and making improvised mischief on the streets of South Central L.A., which in 1973, when the film was made, had not yet fallen prey to the predations of crack, gangs and guns. The violence in "Killer of Sheep" is petty, even as it anticipates the carnage to come; in one heartbreaking shot, a young girl hangs out the day's wash, only to have a marauding bunch of kids throw sand on it.

Fans of the 2000 film "George Washington" will recognize Burnett's influence on that similarly confident debut (by David Gordon Green). But "Killer of Sheep" is unlike any American film of its time or any other. It's been compared to Vittorio De Sica's "Bicycle Thief," and its spontaneous, intimate style certainly makes a nod to the Italian neo-realists. But what makes "Killer of Sheep" great art is that it hews to no aesthetic or political party line, instead carving out its own path in terms of what story it tells and how. There's no discernible "point" to Stan's weary struggle, no cathartic scene of healing or triumph; rather than being explicitly political, "Killer of Sheep" is a film in which the political is deeply inscribed. Stan doesn't stick it to The Man or sweep his beautiful wife up in his arms as the music swells or hug his kids in a satisfying third-act climax. He just survives, managing a quick nap and a smile to indicate that he's going to be okay. (It bears noting that the only white person in "Killer of Sheep" is the female proprietor of a package goods store who makes a sexual pass at Stan while she asks him to come work for her.)

Funny and sad, tough and tender, "Killer of Sheep" is a movie that seems to exist between times and places and cultures. Stan and his Watts neighbors still carry the folkways of the rural South where they were born, even as they denigrate them. (Stan's wife chastises one of her children for calling her "M'dear.") Just as the film seems to teeter on a cusp between country and city, past and future, guerrilla grass roots and highbrow esoterica, it blurs the line between fact and fiction, with its hand-held immediacy and nonprofessional cast providing documentary-like ballast to its spare, lyrical narrative.

As a portrait of displacement and impending doom, "Killer of Sheep" possesses a mournful, almost elegiac power, casting a wistful glance back to a disappearing way of life even as it looks forward with wary apprehension. But take another look, and "Killer of Sheep" brims with humor and compassion and hope as Burnett pays homage to making do with what's at hand.

You might even want to think about seeing it more than once. For this is a work that becomes exponentially richer and more profound upon repeated viewings. It's a testament to Burnett's talent that what on the surface looks so simple is in fact a densely layered, morally complex film operating on myriad levels at once. See "Killer of Sheep." Then see it again, and again. It's one of those truly rare movies that just get better.

Killer of Sheep (83 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is not rated. It contains adult themes and some sensuality.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company