Directed by: CHARLES BURNETT
1977, TSPDT Rank #299
Charles Burnett's debut is widely known as a cornerstone of American independent cinema, and as far as its place in African American cinema goes, it's notable for showing us something that blaxploitation was never going to - the lives of a community of black people as they deal with the routine problems that life presents and reckon with the fact that they're never going to be going anywhere. Nothing is sensationalized here and there are no life-and-death decisions to be made, and although crime is always lurking on the sidelines as a sort of ambient constant to be occasionally considered, none of the major characters choose to get involved in it - so there are no tense action sequences or shootouts with the police. The film uses the character of Stan, a disillusioned slaughterhouse worker, as its focal point, but his life is shown as essentially an assortment of dead ends, and he isn't given a chance to heroically conquer his depressing circumstances - in fact, he never does much of anything. The film's style has been compared to neorealism, with its meandering structure and focus on the "in-between moments" which were Italian neorealism's claim to fame. But "Killer of Sheep" arguably does a better job of accomplishing what the neorealists always claimed as their goal - that is, showing life "as it really is". After all, for all of their in-between moments, the classic Italian neo-realist films of Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica usually retained a tightly constructed narrative structure, but there is hardly any narrative at all to be found in "Killer of Sheep". Instead, Burnett gives us an unhurried stream of evocative episodes which combine to give the viewer a portrait of the people of the Watts neighborhood in Los Angeles and the non-events which make up their day to day existence. We eventually come to feel that these people could be just about anyone, making this film a lot closer to the documentary style that the neorealists were striving for thirty years earlier.