I had the good fortune of watching Killer of Sheep on the big screen earlier this year. The film program at Madison offered a class on American Independent Cinema last semester and Charles Burnett’s film was part of the course’s screening schedule. Since many instructors in the program open their screenings up to the public–the theater in Vilas Hall is technically a public space for other screenings–my partner and I seized the opportunity to watch it.
We knew quite a bit about it following its 2007 DVD release. Specifically, we knew about its prestige and various interventions from the Library of Congress, Steven Soderbergh, and a team of archivists to get the film preserved and distributed after its limited 1977 release. Having written a bit on Burnett’s contemporary Julie Dash, I also knew about the L.A. Rebellion, an underground African American film movement that was active during the 70s and early 80s and comprised of filmmakers responding to European Art Cinema and responding against the minstrelsy they believed typified blaxploitation films.
We also knew it was a film about a poor black family in Watts that poetized their humanity in ways similar to the cinematic traditions of British kitchen sink realism and Italian neorealism. Stan (Henry G. Sanders) is the young patriarch who works in a slaughterhouse to provide for his (unnamed) wife (Kaycee Moore) and children (played by Jack Drummond and Burnett’s niece Angela). He is lured into a criminal plan because his job cannot cover all of his family’s necessities and because the monotonous labor is killing him inside.
The film is austere. It commits to showing its audience dilapidated housing projects and the city’s limited and gendered recreational activities for black adolescents. It commits to having its audience hear black men argue about what it means to truly be poor–Stan is convinced that he’s not really poor because he hasn’t resorted to eating weeds yet. It features heartbreaking performances from characters who are punished by society for seeming too desperate, too proud, and too cunning, but ultimately because they live in a country that only values factory labor insofar as how it can profit from it and refuses to invest it in the poor black families dependent on that income or in the financial stability and emotional well-being of the men and women who hold down those jobs (until they get outsourced).
I recognize that Sheep‘s aesthetic realism is constructed, as is any attempt to use cinema either to put forth or avoid telling capital-t truths. But what is most effective about the film is its observational quality. It doesn’t feel manipulative or exploitative, perhaps in part because it doesn’t suggest that these characters’ lives are inherently tragic, so much as compromised by white supremacist systemic oppression. It is convinced of their particular beauty, despite–perhaps because of–all the concrete, shit, blood, and racism diminishing their environment. What makes Sheep rare and important is that it never condescends to that beauty. Burnett doesn’t speak for that beauty or talk down to it. He tries to honor his characters’ conflicted humanity by making a film that looks like it would screen at a cinematheque, except that it’s about people rarely seen on-screen or in the audience.
I also knew that Sheep had a period-appropriate soundtrack full of unlicensed soul and R&B music meant to further articulate black urban subjectivity that, unfortunately, contributed to its decades-long inaccessibility. In particular, I knew it made poignant use Dinah Washington’s version of “This Bitter Earth.” What I didn’t know is that it also had a scene that featured Angela Burnett’s character singing Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Reasons.” Clearly, it’s my favorite.
The juxtaposition between mother and daughter’s leisure time is obvious. The song–a love ballad about longing for carnal and emotional intimacy–is clearly meant to comment on how neglected Stan’s wife feels as she puts on makeup in an attempt to please him. But “Reasons” is placed within the diegesis of the scene and her daughter is singing over it, loudly stumbling over the words. The little girl is also playing with a naked white female doll, at once performing for it and ignoring it as she gets caught up in the joyful noise her voice is creating. It’s also a small window into black girl fandom. Given how rare it is to actually see mediated representations of black girlhood, witnessing black girls engage with popular texts emanating from black culture is something to treasure. I’m thrilled to hear Angela Burnett’s voice blend and clash with Philip Bailey’s falsetto and glad her uncle included it in this remarkable film.