I have been waiting to talk about Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1978) for a long time. I first recommended it all the way back in episode 005. In my estimation, it’s one of the most important American films ever made, independent or otherwise. It’s a moving document of a slaughterhouse worker and his family, all of whom are dealing with not enough hope to go around in their home and neighborhood. This street-level examination of the daily struggles of the working class in Watts is a beautiful and painful piece of American realism. There is no one better than Charles Burnett at crafting these perfect, human-sized portraits of black life in America. Everyone is better for having seen them.
Coming out of the L.A. Rebellion, Burnett was part of a loose affiliation of filmmakers determined to make a new black cinema. They wanted to counter the stereotypes constantly being churned out by the Hollywood machine and Killer of Sheep is sterling example of how effective that could be. His camera is like a fly on the wall, showing us what life in this place and time was truly like, honest and unadorned. I’m always a sucker for a window into a world that I could never otherwise visit. I think it’s one of cinema’s greatest functions. When your guide is someone as talented and sensitive as Charles Burnett, it makes visiting those worlds not just a pleasure, but a necessity. I hope you find this movie as valuable as it deserves.
What you’ll find in this episode: the daily grind, pride, prejudice, life in the abattoir, and this bitter earth.
Check out Killer of Sheep on IMDB.
Ericca’s further viewing pick of Lift.
Cole’s further viewing pick of To Sleep with Anger.
Get your own copy of Killer of Sheep from Milestone Films.
Listen to Charles Burnett talk about the social responsibility of filmmaking.