In a 1999 telephone interview with LA Weekly reporter Erin J. Aubry, film critic Armond White said, “Spike [Lee] has become a first-rate marketer—he knows what a young audience wants, and he supplies it. Spike picks hot topics—basketball, interracial dating—but that doesn’t mean you break ground. Barbara Walters picks hot topics every day. The pretense of seriousness doesn’t mean you’re serious.” In defense of Charles Burnett’s 1977 masterpiece Killer of Sheep, White, who wrote a piece on the film for The A List: The National Society of Film Critics’ 100 Essential Films, also suggests that Burnett, not Lee, shows black American life as it really is.
It’s easy to see why White has it in for Lee. The black filmmaker’s joints are brash and fashionable but their truths are rarely vibrant, made and marketed to appeal to the same youth that typically favors American Pie over All the Real Girls, Trainspotting over All or Nothing, and Dead Presidents over George Washington. There’s nothing wrong with accessibility, but Lee’s Hollywood success would seem to oppress the visions of true-grit independent black filmmakers like Burnett who struggle to get their films made, and then seen. Where Lee has been championed for delivering his vision of black life in America to a mass audience, the elegiac films of Burnett have gone largely ignored.
Killer of Sheep, like most of Burnett’s early films, takes place in and around the Watts ghetto of Los Angeles. The fly-on-the-wall narrative observes the life of a slaughterhouse worker, Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), who grapples daily with poverty, misbehaving children, and the allure of violence. The film at once recalls the gritty, episodic quality of Cassavetes’s Shadows and Faces, the plangency of Bresson’s allegorical Au Hasard Balthazar, and Renoir’s unsentimental humanity. Despite these influences, the film’s sad yet proud vision of black life in the ghetto is distinctly Burnett’s own, and one that would influence David Gordon Green’s wonderful George Washington.
Burnett shot Killer of Sheep over a series of weekends on a shoestring budget of just under $20,000, using friends and relatives as actors. None of these things should be taken as limitations; if anything, the film is ennobled by them. If not for its almost poetic sense of rhythm and the dialogue’s bibilical overtones, Killer of Sheep could very well pass for a documentary about life in the Watts. Stan’s wife advises him not to engage in shady business dealings with murderous men, but not before slowly entering the frame from the dark shadows of her home’s interior and suffering through a debate on human nature that likens a man’s fists to that of an animal’s teeth. This is storytelling at once unglamorous and morally elating.
Killer of Sheep is stitched together from similar such evocations of African-American behavior in the Watts ghetto—rituals of denial, desire, and disappointment, as well as modes of playtime that often veer toward the dangerous. Though Stan’s wife prevents him from being led to slaughter, he leaves her in sorrow after a dance between the couple prognosticates sex, and when kids fight near railroad tracks, Burnett frames the action using a series of abstract, tight close-ups, finding something mythic in their oddly serene antics. Burnett’s compassionate cutting gets to the root of how consciousness is passed through generations, as in the racially-charged juxtaposition of Stan’s wife dolling herself up and her daughter playing dress-up with a white doll. Burnett’s vision is unpretentious and matter-of-fact but its truths are totemic.
What distinguishes Killer of Sheep from films like Clockers is its absence of malice, which is striking given its tough view of life in the Watts ghetto. Blues music plays an important role in the film, but while Burnett’s musical choices may stress the plight of his characters, the songs are also hopeful, enlarging the humanist essence of the film’s images, which convey the idea that life in the Watts is not so much about suffering as it is about persevering. That means you won’t hear Nina Simone’s “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” or Billie Holiday’s version of “Strange Fruit” on the soundtrack but Dinah Washington’s stirring rendition of “Unforgettable,” which plays over the closing image of little lambs oblivious to their impending doom.