Killer of Sheep – 1979 – dir. Charles Burnett
Of all the master storytelling, truthfulness, and beauty packed into Charles Burnett’s 1979 Killer of Sheep, my favorite scene is the trip to buy a car motor.
From the beginning of the scene, as Stan (Henry G. Sanders) and Bracy (Charles Bracy) park their rusted-out pickup truck in front of the house where the sellers are, the venture seems doomed to fail. Maybe I hear something in the ice cream truck music that accompanies their approach, or see something in the pitch of the hill where they park, or maybe I’m disappointed in the way they quickly talk about how to handle the negotiation by splitting up the money; however you slice it, the scene exudes a certain notion—albeit a calm one—that the plan just isn’t going to work out for Stan and Bracy.
Things only get worse inside the house. A man with a bandaged head tells them that he was beat up because his assailant “didn’t have nothing else to do with his hands and his feet,” as if that’s a very reasonable explanation. Then negotiations lag: “All I got is ten dollars,” Bracy says, Burnett shows us gum being chewed, cards being dealt, lotion being spread on legs, before Bracy ups his offer: “All I got is fifteen.”
The feeling that pervades throughout the film is right here in this moment, and that feeling is that no one, even when they are getting paid or getting love, is really getting ahead. Even the sharply dressed, card-playing, swaggering man who sells the motor—although he wins the negotiations—seems to concede the sale as a loss and says, “Give me fifteen dollars for the motor and a shirt for collateral and it be slick.”
Even though Stan and Bracy come out ahead financially—I still think they get the motor at a decent price—they still have to lug it down two flights of stairs. (And these actors are actually struggling to get the motor down the stairs.) What I really like about Burnett is that he knows when to take his time, and by allowing us to watch people struggling with something or unsure of themselves or ho-hum bored, he brews honesty into the characters in such a simple way.
Then, after all their work, they destroy the motor. One incorrect move, a crash, and Bracy says, “Sockets busted now. It ain’t no good,” and with all the tragicomedy of Beckett, they just leave the damn thing in the road. Burnett even gives us one last longing full-framed glance at the motor, which seems to be flaunting the fact that it swallowed up all the effort, money, time, and hopes of Stan and Bracy. That motor is one heartless sponge. Before they get in the car, I half expect them to go back up and buy another motor to complete some type of reverse Sisyphean cycle where they are doomed to forever carry a useless item down flights of stairs.
Thankfully Burnett doesn’t dwell or repeat much: Killer of Sheep reads like vignettes, and after the trip to buy the motor there are other barely interconnected tales, but what ties the whole shebang together is the idea of failure, despair, and the impossibility of getting ahead. And this seems to be the point.
The simplest explanation of the film is that Burnett is showing us that in 1979 the Watts district of Los Angeles was like a slaughterhouse. The film’s backbone is recurring images of young black girls and boys spliced and juxtaposed against sheep blindly being coaxed from their pens to the knives and hooks of the slaughterhouse. Both the children and the sheep have naivety and innocence, and we’re at once concerned for them and mesmerized by (and jealous of) their freedom.
These kids are not derived from hardened stereotypes like the kids in The Sandlot or Stand By Me. They are a boiling, mischievous perpetual motion machine that seem to be the source material for the kids in David Gordon Green’s George Washington.
The scenes are frank and startling: images of sheep struggling over one another toward safety and stirring up dirt segue into to a group of youths play-fighting at the bottom of a housing project staircase; images of kids throwing dirt and rocks at a young girl hanging clean laundry to dry segue into a close-up of two steers nuzzling one another. The thesis of this film is clearly that these children—and their parents and neighbors—are all on the doomed end of the social and economic spectrum, but are still able to exist in and even seemingly enjoy their rough, thoughtless purgatorial state. But Burnett is trying to show more than a broad spectrum analysis, and the film slowly and calmly uncovers more individualized worries.
Stan, who is the the defacto protagonist, is a worker at the slaughterhouse with all sorts of troubles and Burnett lays out the plotting around him in a series of loose rhythms. There’s a trip out to the country and racetrack that is halted abruptly by a flat tire for which there is no spare; there are marital problems exacerbated by money troubles; there’s a couple of gang bangers looking for someone who “won’t blush a murder.” Everyone in the film seems to have goals that are unobtainable or just inconsistent with the reality of their situation: Stan’s wife (played wonderfully by Kaycee Moore) is desperate for Stan’s love, but he’s so distracted by other worries that she says he “Doesn’t seem to be mine. Like half eaten cake.”
Killer of Sheep is genius in character and honest in character, but the film isn’t pristine, and it doesn’t flaunt itself as much more than a student film (Burnett submitted it as his MFA thesis to the UCLA Film School). Although the film is scratched and scarred and grainy, there is so much beauty in the editing and camerawork. In fact, all of the post-production work is wonderful: heaps of soul music and ambient sound enhance and interfere with every scene. I don’t know if it is purposeful, but I personally like when some dialogue is masked, and I usually assume that the filmmaker knows exactly when to make things clear.
You should just see Killer of Sheep, or come see it at the Brattle. There’s so much to read about it, as the film has become a favorite of critics and artists (Mos Def even featured a still from it on the cover of his 2009 album The Ecstatic), and one could spend forever poring over existing reviews and commentaries like this one, but I think the best thing to do is to pay the $15, buy the motor, and try to carry it down the stairs.