Charles Burnett’s first film, a UCLA student film, is one of the most ambitious and culturally important movies of the last thirty plus years. Killer of Sheep take the Italian Neo-Realist style and places it in the setting of 1970s inner city Los Angeles. The film’s comments on race, poverty, and the ultimate social struggles of the people depicted in the film are timeless and it is a striking début picture in the way it deftly handles those ideas in interesting, artful ways.
The film’s ultimate protagonist is Stan, played by Henry G. Sanders, a hulking African American man who works at a slaughterhouse. The film follows him, his children, and his wife as they live their lives in the inner city. The film is, ultimately, plot-less gliding its way through a narrative that takes bit and pieces of these people’s lives and combing it together to form a pastiche of life as they live it. Burnett takes his amateur cast and scenes of actual children playing and skillfully intercuts the film with Stan working at the slaughterhouse herding and taking sheep into the slaughterhouse for their violent end. It’s obvious what the film is trying to say at points and can come off as art house heavy-handedness but the filmmaker’s amateurish style works in favor of these so-so moments and creates something very powerful.
The film’s contains multitudes in the way of beautiful imagery that takes the film leaps and bounds above the amateurish qualities of other portions of the film and there is an air of importance surrounding the film. A world that can be as foreign and strange as you can find, a film of its time that takes those scenes and represents them unvarnished with an eloquent beauty that is difficult to surmise, Burnett’s film takes on an importance that might be too much for its ultimately disjointed, plot-less narrative. However, these elements combine in such a way as to make a combustible film that comes alive with every beautifully shot black and white frame. If you have the patience, this film will get under your skin like few others ever will.
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