In 1977, Charles Burnett began production of his debut feature “Killer of Sheep,” a film following the everyday working class struggles of a Black slaughterhouse worker. 13 years later, it was one of the first 50 films deemed a national treasure by the Library of Congress.
With this film and his subsequent realist works, Burnett is regarded as one of the most important filmmakers of the 20th century, going on to inspire artists like Spike Lee, Barry Jenkins and Ryan Coogler.
“Killer of Sheep” puts the impoverished Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts under the microscope. The film was made 12 years after the Watts Rebellion, a six-day series of protests against police brutality in which 34 protesters were murdered. The aftermath of the state-sponsored violence echoes throughout the many scenes of children scampering through the ruins of old buildings destroyed in the decade prior.
When watching the film, it’s important to first look at the historical context that surrounded it. During the ‘70s, UCLA’s film program saw an influx of Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) artists who sought to document the realities of their communities in solidarity with radical filmmakers from Latin America and Africa. This movement of young writers/directors was called the “L.A. Rebellion” and produced masters like Julie Dash, Haile Gerima and, of course, Burnett.
The L.A. Rebellion sought to deconstruct the white supremacist foundations of Hollywood that came about with its inception. The first “blockbuster” was D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation,” a film glorifying the Ku Klux Klan and praising their actions.
Even with technical advancements, Hollywood continued its racist practices. The first-ever full feature sound film, or “talkie,” was “The Jazz Singer,” a film whose protagonist is frequently in blackface. Even after the popularity of these blatantly racist films began to wane, Hollywood continued to largely censor and ignore Black artists.
The L.A. Rebellion looked outside the typical Hollywood studio systems, creating independently funded films that highlighted class and race issues endemic to the United States. Taking inspiration from artists like Ousmane Sembéne and Fernando Solanas, the “L.A. rebels” told stories of anti-colonialism, anti-capitalism and anti-racism.
“Killer of Sheep,” Burnett’s master’s thesis film at UCLA, was produced with a meager budget of $10,000 and kick-started the movement of BIPOC filmmakers in the Los Angeles area.
The film weaves in and out of the life of Stan, an exhausted and alienated slaughterhouse worker who toils tirelessly at his job. He is played expertly by Henry G. Sanders, one of only three characters not played by real-life residents of Watts. He strikes a depressed figure, constantly working to make ends meet for his wife and children, yet still maintains resilience in the face of his mental and physical struggles.
Burnett refuses to romanticize Stan’s work, portraying life inside the slaughterhouse as haunting and draining. In one particularly gruesome scene, we watch as sheep are hung up on hooks and slowly bleed out onto the factory floor. Stan corrales the other sheep to their death with a numb, blank expression across his face.
This same expression is maintained throughout most of the film, and the exhaustion behind it affects every interaction he has. Stan complains to his friends that he can’t sleep, strangers tell him he looks sad and even when his wife attempts to seduce him, he simply walks away without a word. There is no structured plot — in its place is a depiction of a common man’s perseverance as the world wears away at him.
Stan’s alienation from his family, friends and community is exacerbated by life’s constant shatterings of his attempts to get ahead. He tries to get an engine to fix his car, but it falls off the back of his friend’s truck and breaks. He heads to a horse race with his family and friends, but they get a flat tire and end up having to hitch a ride home.
The American myth of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” doesn’t exist for Stan. Instead, he must work endlessly to just barely keep his family above the abyss of extreme poverty.
The rest of the film serves as a sharp juxtaposition to Stan’s life. Spread across the movie are vignettes of children living, laughing and playing in the neighborhood. A young boy is playfully harassed by a group of older girls, children daringly dash across the rooftops of an apartment complex, a group of kids toss rocks at each other, and so on and so forth.
The sound and vision of their laughter and smiles are a bright respite to Stan’s reality. It’s especially important to note that every child portrayed was a resident of Watts, and Burnett simply captured them playing about in their community.
As the camera tracks along with the children running down the street, we see their laughter as a representation of hope. Even after the constant setbacks and back-breaking labor we view throughout the film, we consistently return to this view of brightness and youth. The laughter of these young people — and the smiles they bring to the adults — shows that there is a light in the community that cannot be extinguished.
Burnett’s goal in making “Killer of Sheep” wasn’t to romanticize the struggles of the community he was from — rather, he tries to force viewers to question the straightforward realities he was presenting. What is the root of Stan’s mental and physical anguish? Why does the joy we see in the children ebb as they reach adulthood?
Burnett never gives any easy answers to these questions, nor does he personify the systemic oppression that the Watts community faces in any character. Instead, within every frame, we feel the invisible weight of capitalism and white supremacy bearing down on the characters as they go about their lives.
Despite the incalculable suffering portrayed, the characters aren’t despondent in the face of a grim reality. Burnett shows that with youth and community, there is beauty and hope for the future.
Dylan Haworth is a freelance reporter at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @dylanhaworth2