Killer Of Sheep (1977)
Charles Burnett

“Who the hell told you I’d help you do away with somebody?”


Killer of Sheep (1977) is an American neorealist film by African American filmmaker Charles Burnett. American Neorealism – Does it sound like an oxymoron? Apparently it isn’t. Charles Burnett’s portrayal of the life and times in the Los Angeles slums has been hailed as one of the greatest truly-American films and even compared to the works of Italian stalwarts Rosselini and Visconti.

Stan (Henry G. Sanders) is a man who makes his living killing sheep in a large slaughterhouse. He lives with his wife (Kaycee Moore) and two kids in the slums of Los Angeles. Theft and violence have become a commonplace in the neighbourhood. As he tries to make ends meet, he is asked by his friends to help them carry out a murder for a huge sum of money. He turns down the offer without consideration. Stan and his friend also try to buy a used engine for their car which, unfortunately, slips off the back of car and breaks.

Stan’s only solace in these testing times is a quiet waltz with his wife at home, isolated from the madness of the outside world. Stan and his friends also try to go out for a family outing just to discover that their car’s tyre has gone flat. In spite of the haunting nature of his job and the pathetic state of society, Stan seems to be uncorrupted and tries to live straight. The mundane life of Stan is interspersed with the dispassionate vignettes from the slum, mainly involving children, showing the oppressive nature of the life for the dwellers.

Stan is the icon of untainted humanity in the film. He is pushed to the extremes by his economic, geographic and ethnic afflictions but chooses to work it out in a fair and square way. He meets with nothing but disappointment in his ventures in the depressing and agonizing neighbourhood, yet tries to absorb his quota of happiness from events that may seem inconsequential to the rest of the world .The film, thus, stresses upon the need to maintain one’s dignity and composure during times of desolation

The unadorned tale of a man from the ghetto is so low-key in its execution with its organic camera work and lack of conventional plot devices and narrative techniques that it feels like a documentary for most part of the film. Though an act of financial pressure, the use of non-professional actors gels well with their milieu and highlights the vulnerability of the common man. The absence of plot in the film enables it to show how life itself is plotless, unless one wants to look at it that way.

At a time when American films had just dumped the World War for the Vietnam War and extravagance was the order of the day, the only representation of African-Americans on the celluloid came in the form of the token black guy who would be killed first in disaster flicks. Though Killer of Sheep never reached the eyes of the mainstream audience at the time of its release, the film pointed out that African-Americans did form an integral part of the history and demography of the US.

Killer of Sheep was revived in 2007 with the help of filmmaker Steven Soderbergh and was given a re-release. Made on a shoestring budget that would embarrass Hollywood, the film is a shrine of inspiration to independent filmmakers around the world and teaches them that good cinema is not about how sensational your visions are, but how well you connect yourself to the world around.