Killer of Sheep (1977)

I don’t know if Charles Burnett is the great undiscovered master of American cinema that he’s generally acclaimed as, I’d need to see more films by him to make that judgement, but I’m kind of pleased at least that decades of unavailability actually haven’t overinflated the reputation of his near-mythical debut feature that much. Killer of Sheep was tangled up in music copyright clearances for decades, so that while it’s been acclaimed all that time (one of the first films on the Library of Congress’ film registry, no less) by those who’ve seen it, not many actually had seen it. Which is always dangerous when a film gains such a reputation while going unseen, but, if I wasn’t perhaps as completely blown away by it as many are, I could still see. Actually mostly shot about 4-5 years before Burnett offered it as his UCLA Master’s thesis, it’s the antithesis of the blaxploitation of the period and also of what he calls the romanticised social realist work of his fellow students; it is definitely NOT a romantic depiction of life in the Watts ghetto, though its achievement lies in also making it not just an emptily bleak catalogue of horrors. It’s basically a series of vignettes rather than a story, scenes in the life of Stan, the titular killer, who has let the slaughterhouse job wear him down; insomnia, disconnection from his family, lack of money, lack of possibilities. There is nothing if not a marked feeling of sadness to the enterprise, but Burnett does it all without giving into melodrama, and similarly the occasional moments of refusing to give in don’t feel forced or anything. As for those music rights, Steven Soderbergh apparently stepped in to assist with restoring the film (which was apparently literally starting to rot) and those clearances were finally obtained too, all but the very last song (“Unforgettable”) under the last scene. So they replaced that with a reprise of Dinah Washington’s “This Bitter Earth”, and I daresay the scene is actually improved as a result…


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