Milieu is the main character in Charles Burnett's KILLER OF SHEEP, an essentially plotless look at everyday life in a semi-suburban black neighborhood. The film is probably the most perceptive and poetic study ever done of Americans existing one level above poverty. Produced for a mere
$10,000 with an amateur cast, it was one of fewer than 100 pictures proclaimed "national treasures" by the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 1990.
Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), a slaughterhouse worker, complains to a friend about his hard life. When his son (Jack Drummond) persists in teasing his sister (Angela Burnett), he chases the boy out of the house. Stan's wife (Kaycee Moore) attempts to talk to him about his increasing melancholy and
lethargy, but he is unresponsive. Two of Stan's friends try to convince him to join them in a murder plot. He refuses and his wife, who has overheard, berates Stan's friends. Stan and his friend, Eugene (Eugene Cherry), visit a man with an old car motor for sale. Minutes after they purchase it, it
falls out of the back of Eugene's pickup and is ruined. Stan and his wife share a romantic dance in their parlor but, when she initiates further intimacy, he does not respond and leaves her unhappily alone.
Burnett filmed KILLER OF SHEEP in Watts--the mostly black, largely poor area of Los Angeles where he grew up--and populated it with friends and acquaintances. The movie, which served as his master's thesis at UCLA, took five years to complete. It is a great film and a unique one. Rarely on the
screen has authenticity been so artistic, or (relentless) irony so free of cynicism. The squalid settings, gritty black-and-white cinematography, and innate modesty of Burnett's sensibility and temperance of his voice tend at first to mask his enormous gifts. Burnett's overall reluctance to play
on audience sympathy does not, however, prevent him from framing many affecting images. KILLER OF SHEEP is everything an independent film should be: artistically ambitious yet accessible; narrowly focused yet suggestive of larger ramifications; and free of obligation to formula, genre, or the star
system. Brilliantly conceived, imaginatively structured, superbly written, stylishly composed and photographed, and very often wryly funny, KILLER OF SHEEP lives up to its official designation as a national treasure. leave a comment