Charles Burnett has had one of the great thwarted careers in American film. He won a MacArthur “genius” grant, in 1988, and a lifetime achievement Oscar, in 2017. So the greatness has not gone unrecognized. The thwartedness has to do with how narrow that recognition has been.
It’s likely you’ve never heard of Burnett or any of the films he’s directed, written, edited, shot, and produced over more than 50 years. His first feature, “Killer of Sheep,” was shot during weekends on 16mm (now blown up to 35mm) and had a budget of $10,000. It makes plain both why he’s so little-known and why that’s been such a loss. The Coolidge Corner is streaming “Killer of Sheep” via its Virtual Screening Room.
The most obvious point to make is also the most reductive: Burnett is Black. This lends a certain sour irony to the timing of his debut feature. “Killer of Sheep” came out in 1977. This was just as the blaxploitation years were ending. Movies like “Shaft” (1971) and “Superfly” (1972) and “Foxy Brown” (1974) had given Black filmmakers and performers a ubiquity — and source of income — unlike any they’d had before. Yet “Killer of Sheep” is about as far away from blaxploitation as “Star Wars” is. That, too, came out in 1977.
Blaxploitation took standard genre pictures and turned them inside out: guns and sex and crime, only seen from the other side of the racial tracks (usually the other side of the law, too). They were also very much traditional Hollywood in being star driven and keyed to near-constant action.
“Killer of Sheep” is definitely on the other side of the tracks — literally. It’s set in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, and in an early scene a bunch of kids throw stones at a passing freight train. It’s visually striking. It’s also telling. You don’t find many trains in Beverly Hills or Brentwood, let alone passing at grade.
The closest “Killer of Sheep” comes to blaxploitation is when two low-life acquaintances of the main character, Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), appear on his front porch and ask him to help commit a crime. After he says no, his wife (Kaycee Moore) comes out and lays into them. Neither crime nor action is the point. There is no crime or action. The point is character, that of Stan and his wife and their marriage.
Stan works in a slaughterhouse. He is literally a killer of sheep, though if you want to interpret the title in a larger sense, with the murderous pressure of race and class, that makes sense, too. In some ways, class matters as much as race, or even more. The only white faces we see belong to some of Stan’s co-workers — like the military, meat-packing is one place where racial integration works in this society — and to a liquor-store owner. They may be peripheral to his world, but they’re part of it.
“Killer of Sheep” isn’t so much a shaped narrative as a collection of moments. Kids play. Stan works at the slaughterhouse (none of the scenes are graphic, but several aren’t for the faint of heart). His son witnesses a couple of teens steal a TV — so does a neighbor, who waters his lawn while wearing a tie (a nice indicator of Burnett’s varied and textured presentation of Watts). Burnett likes to crowd his frame — he has so much to show — but never clutter it. He has a fine eye for detail: a can of Schlitz on the hood of a derelict car; a different can, of Del Monte peaches, as a gesture of kindness; an American flag a kid has stuck on the back of his bike.
Burnett also has a fine ear, which makes for two more sour ironies. Sound quality can vary from scene to scene or even within a scene. Making a movie for $10,000 means technical corners have to be cut. Instead of a score, Burnett uses a terrific range of preexisting music: from Paul Robeson and Louis Armstrong to Little Walter and Earth, Wind & Fire. Dinah Washington sings “This Bitter Earth” twice: as Stan and his wife slow-dance and then while he works at the slaughterhouse. You’ll never hear the song the same way again. The music is crucial to the movie. Unfortunately, Burnett’s not having the money to clear the rights for the music (there are bits of William Grant Still and Rachmaninoff orchestral compositions, too) helped keep “Killer of Sheep” from having wider distribution.
Burnett avoids all genre conventions, since “Killer of Sheep” doesn’t really belong to any genre. At various times it evokes kitchen-sink domestic drama, Italian neorealism, Lorraine Hansberry, the photographs of Ralph Eugene Meatyard, English lyrical documentary of the ’30s (Burnett studied at UCLA with Basil Wright, the director of “Song of Ceylon” and “Night Mail”), even the most famous scene from Laurel and Hardy — is Stan’s name a coincidence? — though here it involves an engine block rather than a piano and isn’t played for laughs.
Burnett’s use of allusion and influence isn’t knowing or self-congratulatory. It’s intuitive, as is the moviemaking. “Killer of Sheep” is a drama that’s hardly at all dramatic, which makes it all the more moving. It’s quiet, unhurried, understated, unblinking. Mood matters more than style, dailiness more than incident. All movies are about other movies. A few are also about life. “Killer of Sheep” is one of them.
KILLER OF SHEEP
Written and directed by Charles Burnett. Starring Henry Gayle Sanders, Kaycee Moore. Streaming via Coolidge Corner Virtual Screening Room at coolidge.org/films/killer-sheep. 80 minutes. Unrated (as R: language, slaughterhouse scenes).
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.