Thursday, February 14, 2013

Killer of Sheep

Written, directed, shot, and edited by Charles Burnett, Killer of Sheep is the story about life in Watts district in Los Angeles that explores the world of urban city life in that area. It’s a film that explores the many different lives of that area as well as what was happening during the 1970s in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement and before the crack epidemic of the 1980s. The result is an evocative yet mesmerizing film from Charles Burnett.

The film is essentially the story about a few days in the life of various people living in the poverty-stricken Watts district in Los Angeles. Notably as it would revolve around a family trying to get by with what they have as a man works at a slaughterhouse in order to feed his family while helping out whatever friends he has in the ghetto. While the film doesn’t have much of a plot nor anything that is traditional in terms of structure or dramatic schematics. Charles Burnett is more interested in capturing the realism that occurs in the ghettos of Los Angeles where even though it’s a place full of ruins and not much is happening. There is an air of innocence in the way children play around in these areas as well as the way people interact with each other despite the harshness of their environment.

Burnett’s direction of the film definitely recalls a lot of the visual elements of the neo-realist films of Italian cinema in the 1940s and 1950s. Through its 16mm black-and-white photography with a bit of grain present, there is something to Burnett’s presentation of the film that is really unlike anything out there. With this photography, Burnett brings a majestic beauty to the harsh realities that occur while utilizing some interesting framing devices to capture the realism that is present in the film. Notably in the way he frames characters through close-ups and medium shots to help capture the intimacy and some tender moments such as a slow dance between a couple in their bedroom.

There are also some moments where Burnett knows something good isn’t going to happen which does play to the neo-realist tone of the film. Even as it reveals something bleak that is going to happen where it could go into an area of melodrama but Burnett prefers to keep the dramatics restrained in order to maintain its realism. There are also lingering images of the slaughterhouse filled with all of these sheep running around as it plays to the struggle of what one of the film’s central characters is going through with its methodical editing. Overall, Burnett creates a very fascinating yet extraordinary film about life in the ghetto.

The sound work of Charles Bracy is superb for the atmosphere it creates to capture the world of the ghetto from the locations outside to the scenes inside. The film’s soundtrack features an array of music ranging from blues, soul, and classical music from artists like Earth, Wind, & Fire, Dinah Washington, Paul Robeson, Elmore James, Louis Armstrong, and many others to play out the sense of melancholia and innocence of the locations. The film’s cast that features performances from mostly non-actors or non-professionals like Henry G. Sanders, Kaycee Moore, Charles Bracy, Angela Burnett, Eugene Cherry, and Jack Drummond are amazing for the naturalistic performances that are in display for the film as they all bring a sense of radiance to the film itself.

Killer of Sheep is a tremendous film from Charles Burnett. It is truly one of the most exhilarating portraits of life in the Los Angeles ghettos of the 1970s without succumbing to clich├ęs or any kind of dramatic tropes. It’s also a film that showcases a world that is very unique and presented with a sense of beauty that is unmatched by anything that has come before and since. In the end, Killer of Sheep is an outstanding film from Charles Burnett.

Charles Burnett Films: My Brother's Wedding - To Sleep with Anger - (The Glass Shield) - (The Annihilation of Fish) - (Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation)

© thevoid99 2013


Courtney Small said...

Glad you enjoyed the film, Steven! I especially liked your point in regards to how Burnett frame many of the intimate moments of the film. I found the slaughterhouse scenes to be darkly poetic in its overall execution.

thevoid99 said...

Definitely a film like no other. I have a couple of Burnett shorts I'm going to watch later tonight. I just love the imagery that he presented. I really hope the DVD is still available.