Starring: Henry Gayle Sanders, Kaycee Moore
Black & White, 83 minutes
Here is a movie in which nothing really happens. There are no action scenes, no nudity, no significant violence to speak of, and certainly no explosions or special effects. What, you still need another reason to watch it? How about this one: Killer of Sheep is everything that Hollywood has never had the balls to attempt. It is a quiet, contemplative experience that slowly seeps into your bones, filling you with warmth and heartache. Shot over the course of a year and costing roughly $10,000, Charles Burnett's debut film was actually his graduate thesis for UCLA, never receiving a proper theatrical release until this year for its thirtieth anniversary. It's about time.
Henry Gayle Sanders plays Stan, a bored, tired, and worn down individual who wants nothing more than a decent job and a chance to get ahead in life. He has a wife (Kaycee Moore) who is a bit sexually repressed, and a couple kids who run around and raise hell. Residing in the Watts district of Los Angeles, Stan doesn't have a lot of opportunities. He runs himself ragged working at a slaughterhouse (hence the film's title), he suffers from insomnia, and he can't reciprocate his wife's caressing touch when the two of them slow dance. Stan would obviously be treated as a pathetic figure in a Hollywood production, but Burnett keeps it real. Stan isn't pathetic at all; he's just one of us: a victim of all that society doesn't have to offer.
The beauty of Burnett's direction is that he doesn't feel the need to hammer all this down our throats. He takes a step back, and just observes. Images of poetic simplicity flow in a strange sort of rhythm (helped a lot by a wonderful soundtrack), tha verges on being hypnotic. Children play in the alleys, throwing rocks and bottles at each other. Stan cashes his check and goes with a buddy to barter for an engine to complete an old car they've been working on. Stan's son sits down at the kitchen table and covers his cereal in sugar. Men herd sheep to their death. There is no real narrative thrust to Burnett's film, and there doesn't need to be one, because watching it is kind of like looking in the mirror. Burnett's gift -beside the fact that he portrays African-Americans in a way that no other filmmaker ever has- is that he has an eye for the mundane. He avoids the spectacular and focuses on the banal, everyday routines that people go through, which means that Sheep is that rare work of art that is entirely devoid of clichés.
This is a film that is so ambitiously different than everything else I've seen, that it had to be made by a young individual, albeit one who must have been mature beyond his years. The film opens with a father scolding his son:
"You are not a child anymore. You, soon, will be a goddamn man."
The film ends with Dinah Washington's rich, soulful voice:
"Today you're young, too soon you're old."
Burnett is now in his sixties, but his film remains fresh and youthful. For any film lover, young or old, it's a rite of passage.