Top Fifty Films of the 70s — Number Twenty-Two

#22 — Killer of Sheep (Charles Burnett, 1977)
Technically, I suppose, Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep could have also factored into my Top Fifty Films of the 00s list. In fact, that may be the more accurate placement for it since music rights issues delayed the film’s first theatrical release until 2007, almost exactly thirty years after the director submitted it as his Master of Fine Arts thesis at U.C.L.A. It could also be argued, albeit less persuasively, that the film belongs among the best films of the 1980s since that’s when it had the bulk of its initial film festival run, significantly playing the Toronto International Film Festival and the Berlin International Film Festival, earning Burnett an award at the latter. Putting aside the vagaries of how a film is dated for the ages, Killer of Sheep is unmistakably a product of the mid-seventies when it was filmed and edited, not just because its raw, loose, naturalistic vibe is the condensed essence of the independent cinema of the era. More than that, it captures the people and environment it depicts–black Americans scraping by in the abandoned and neglected inner city–and locks them into a point of time with an evocative truthfulness and piercing empathy that rivals the famed Great Depression photography of Walker Evans.

Filmed largely on weekends across two years, Killer of Sheep is immersed in experience rather than driven by plot. There are loosely connected interactions and a character who can vaguely be called a protagonist (a slaughterhouse employee named Stan, played by Henry Gayle Sanders), but the prevailing feel of the film is that of hanging around a neighborhood, quietly observing the comings and goings of individuals who are going about their business with as little investment in the world beyond their handful of relevant city blocks as they can muster. Shot in lonely, lowly black and white that casts a whole society in drably beautiful tones of gray, the entire film is a demonstration of what its like to live in the shadows cast by those who not only achieved the American dream, but packed it under their arms and took it with them to be sure that no one else would share in their prosperity. This is what it’s like, the film shows, to be left behind, the only solace that can be taken is having one’s own choice in deciding precisely when to give up.

Burnett was born in Mississippi but grew up in Watts. Understandably, he films the concrete landscape not like an interloper but as someone who knows every scuffed corner. There’s an intimacy built right into the film that carries over into the shot construction. Working with no real budget and certainly no filming permits, Burnett needed to build his scenes thoughtfully and choose his images with an intricacy that comes from often having one and only one chance to capture a moment (if nothing else, film was damn expensive in the mid-seventies and it was his only choice). That doesn’t inspire Burnett to settle for the mundane. On the contrary, he frames images with a smart, unobtrusive creativity, considering how he can make the film visually interesting without the benefit of multiple angles and dynamic editing. Burnett pulls it all together with the apparent confidence that ideas and honesty will carry the film in ways that will make up for any technical shortcomings. That’s absolutely the case: Killer of Sheep holds a quiet power that a swelled budget couldn’t have bought, not at any price.