BadAzz MoFo celebrates Black History Month 2012 by focusing on Black Cinema—a look at the films, filmmakers, and actors that have contributed to the black diaspora in film.
Set in the Watts, director Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheepis a brilliant examination of the poor, African-American experience in the inner city. Henry Gayle Sanders gives a rich, textured performance as Stan, a working class father and husband who struggles to make ends meet by slaving away at a Los Angeles slaughter house, where he systematically kills sheep. “I’m working myself into my own hell,” he says to a friend. Stan’s hell involves more than the day-to-day grind of providing for his family, or giving in to the quick fix of turning to crime for cash. His nights are an unending struggle with insomnia, and he is unable to find the passion he needs to keep his wife (Kaycee Moore) feeling needed and desired. Everywhere he turns are the reminders that the creeping disease of poverty has afflicted both him and his family. But he refuses to accept his plight. “Man, I ain’t poor,” he says at one point, trying to convince his friend as much as himself. “I give away things to the Salvation Army. You can’t give nothin’ to the Salvation Army if you’re poor.”
Although Stan’s day-to-day struggle to retain his dignity and provide for his family is the closest thing to a plot Killer of Sheep has to offer, ultimately that’s not what the film is completely about. The film, quite simply, is the raw, visceral experience of being poor and black in America. And with little by way of traditional structure and storytelling to be found in Burnett’s work, Killer of Sheep has the look and feel of a documentary more than a narrative film, as well as an aesthetic usually only found in foreign cinema. Grainy black and white photography, sparse dialog, and lingering shots of the marvelous and the mundane are the brush strokes used paint this portrait. In Burnett’s world children playing in an abandoned lot, kicking up a storm of dust that blankets the sky, is all that’s needed by way of exposition. He drops his audience into a world with no explanation, and trusts that pure humanity is all the explanation that will be required for his story to make sense. In that regard, Killer of Sheephas more in common with French cinema vérité or Italian neorealism than anything generally found in American film. And yet, the gritty realism that lives and breathes in every frame of Burnett’s work was not as informed by the work of De Sica or Rossellini as it was the director’s own personal experiences.
What narrative there is in Killer of Sheeprests primarily on the slumped, everyman shoulders of Sanders, whose weary gaze and melancholy face give the film much of its heart and soul. But an equal measure of the film’s deeper emotional resonance comes from Kaycee Moore, who co-stars as Stan’s unnamed wife, spending much of the film silently wondering what happened to the passion in their marriage. If Stan is the embodiment of the physical toll exacted by the ravages of poverty, then his wife is the embodiment of the emotional ravages. The constant work and pressure of life that has left Stan incapable of making love to his wife, thereby rendering him something less than a man, has also robbed his wife of her womanhood. The fact that they can no longer share intimacy has left both of them broken shells of their own humanity. Both Sanders and Moore bring such a nuanced and subtle sense of damaged spirit and lost of self to their roles—most of it conveyed silently—that it is difficult to believe these are actors.
Produced over the course of two years, Killer of Sheep was made during blaxploitation era of the 1970s, when films like Shaft and Foxy Brown were redefining the way blacks were portrayed on the screen. But while the action films of that time went a long way to subvert many of the long existing stereotypes that plagued the image of African Americans on screen, the new archetypes of that era were still larger than life caricatures. Which is what makes Killer of Sheepall the more revolutionary: its depiction of black life was solely grounded in reality.
With the exception of perhaps 1964’s Nothing But a Man, no fictional film has ever presented a more honest glimpse at the black experience in America than Killer of Sheep. And with the exception of perhaps 1984’s Bless Their Little Hearts (which Burnett wrote and photographed), no film since Killer of Sheep has presented a more honest examination of black life in America. This is a deeply intimate examination of life in the ghetto, stripped of all the trappings, conventions and stereotypes that have defined the black experience on the screen. The result is a raw, brutally honesty look at the lives of poor black people, captured with an unsentimental gaze that is as ugly as it is exquisitely beautiful.