Killer of Sheep begins with a father chastising his son for not protecting his brother from bullies, concluding the reprimand by telling the boy that it’s time for him to learn what life is really like. Such a lesson is blisteringly delivered by Charles Burnett’s 1977 masterpiece, which is finally receiving its first U.S. theatrical release 30 years after Burnett produced it as his UCLA film school thesis, and whose emotional and sociological incisiveness hasn’t been dulled a bit by three decades of concealment (caused by music rights issues). Perhaps the preeminent example of American Neo-Realism, Burnett’s debut – which in 1990 was added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry – is an aching glimpse at life in Watts, CA, its wandering yet nonetheless searing gaze focusing most specifically on titular slaughterhouse worker Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), his wife (the luminous, soulful Kaycee Moore), and their two children. They’re a family perilously surviving on the fringe, and one whose day-to-day travails are dramatized by Burnett with a lyrical grace infused with sadness and sympathy, the director so invested in his characters’ plight that it’s as if the film itself is on the verge of tears when Stan, taking a brief break from fixing his busted sink, matter-of-factly states “I’m working myself into my own hell.”
Exhaustion, frustration, fear and anguish line Stan’s face upon realizing that it’s once again time for his daily sheep-killing grind, emotions which Burnett pinpoints with a multitude of scenes whose ostensibly offhand poetry is partly derived from their frank, gritty realism. Stan holding a coffee mug to his cheek (a sensation that reminds him of making love), aimless kids wasting away their days playing in dilapidated buildings and on railroad tracks (their rock-throwing set to a singer’s hope for “No races or religions, that’s America to me”), Stan’s arduous, ultimately unsuccessful efforts to purchase a new car engine – all of these incidents manage to capture truths about the human (and, specifically, African-American) condition, about the way in which happiness is a fleeting treasure, about the destructiveness of inertia, and about the pain that accompanies striving to make it from one morning to the next. “You gonna fall behind?” asks a girl to her sick, out-of-school friend, and the echo of the statement – are all of these destitute young ones going to fall behind in life’s race? – reverberates, like so much of Killer of Sheep’s natural, casual dialogue, with the force of a freight train.
Violence permeates Burnett’s compassionate portrait, from that of the slaughterhouse to the neighborhood kids’ aggressive horsing around (which repeatedly ends with a child crying). This physical brutality is complemented by emotional suffering, whether it be Stan’s dogged attempts to persevere in the face of dire circumstances, or his relationship to his spouse, whose desperate need for sexual intimacy is rebuffed by her remote, sleep-deprived husband. The tensions between genders are found in both the younger and older generations, whose strained dynamics are paralleled via Burnett’s piercing, poignant juxtapositions, such as when Stan’s rejection of his wife’s romantic entreaty segues into the sight of adolescent boys callously throwing dirt at a girl hanging sheets on a clothesline. Even when an image of running children is followed by that of sheep being herded toward their death, Burnett never overtly or insistently preaches, his film dreamily meandering from one verité moment to the next with an absolute minimum of directorial underlining. Scored to the laments of Dinah Washington’s “This Bitter Earth” and Paul Robeson’s “The House I Live In” (among others), his is a tale so smoothly and effortlessly constructed that the boundaries between the staged and the authentic seemingly cease to exist.
Stan’s daughter wears a hangdog mask that serves as a reflection of her dad’s despondent countenance, and despite Killer of Sheep’s alternately funny and heartbreaking depiction of its gone-to-seed milieu – where criminal opportunities, untrustworthy slackers and decent men in search of sustenance commingle amidst infrastructural rubble – it’s this image of the silently gazing child that eventually comes to define Burnett’s film. Throughout, kids act as witnesses to poverty, to hostility and viciousness, to misery, and what emerges from these visions of observant juveniles is an impression of harmful osmosis, of kids being infected with a deep-rooted, corrosive spiritual poison. Burnett’s representation of urban poverty is laced with sly humor and culminates with Stan achieving, if not outright relief and contentment, at least a momentary measure of personal and familial peace. Yet any optimism ultimately remains tempered, with the dual birth/death conclusion conveying – as do the alert eyes of its errant baby-faces – the sense that, for these marginalized people desperately trying to cling to some form of the American Dream, joy will always be tempered by sorrow, and hardship will likely be the legacy they pass on to their descendents.