KILLER OF SHEEP, 1977
KILLER OF SHEEP, 1977
Directed by Charles Burnett
16 mm black-and-white film
83 minutes
Student Film, UCLA
DVD

Directed by Charles Burnett when he was a student at UCLA in 1977, Killer of Sheep is a gem of a film—one that grows richer and more satisfying with each viewing. Produced on a very low budget, the film is nonetheless artfully and seamlessly constructed. It is notable for its textured and precise depiction of the life of a small circle of working-class African American families—men, women and children living in the ghetto of Watts in Los Angeles in the late 1970s. Set in a riot-stricken neighborhood of abandoned buildings, the film moves us not through blunt sociological commentary, but rather through the economical use of details rich in poetry and imagination. Its resonant cinema-vérité style recalls the best of Italian Neorealism.

Killer of Sheep invites us to closely observe two simultaneously unfolding worlds: the black ghetto and the visceral reality of the slaughterhouse floor where Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), the protagonist, works every day rounding up and killing sheep. The film’s vision of the sheep riding one another’s backs in their eagerness to go to their deaths—followed by footage of them hanging upside down from hooks—is the unforgettable metaphor that shapes our experience of the film.

The movie is not without keen social observation: racism and economic injustice cling to everything and everyone like dust. In the end, it offers one of the most successful consequential representations of the lives of ordinary black people until that time, whether in Watts or anywhere else in America in the 1970s. 

Despite enthusiastic critical reception, Killer of Sheep languished, virtually unknown, for decades. It was placed on the National Film Registry in 1990, and UCLA transferred the original 16 millimeter print to 35 millimeter. As Burnett has steadily advanced into the ranks of America’s premier African American directors, the film has risen in prominence and recognition.

Michele Wallace