Monday 24 April 2017

1,001 Films: "Killer of Sheep" (1977)

Charles Burnett's debut film Killer of Sheep fell between Shaft and Wild Style on the timeline of landmark moments in black cinema, but it looks to be taking place somewhere else entirely: during a never-ending depression on the other side of the world. In beautiful monochrome images, we observe a working-class family interacting with their environs, the rundown Watts district of Los Angeles. At first, the focus is on the family's youngsters: its kids-at-play sequences remained the best up until David Gordon Green's George Washington, on which Burnett's film clearly had a considerable influence. The protagonist, though, turns out to be their father Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), who rejects the easy money offered to him by a pair of gangsters to earn an honest living hosing the shit and blood off a slaughterhouse floor. In the course of the film, Stan has to perform several near-Sisyphean tasks: trying to fix up a house in a neighborhood beyond repair; carrying a car engine down several flights of stairs only to see it fall out the back of his pick-up truck. The film is so rooted in its particular place that it has secondary value as a discourse on the architecture of the ghetto, and sets one to wondering just what became of LA in the 1980s. 1991's Boyz N The Hood, perhaps the next great 'hood drama, would play out on flat suburban spaces, but the Watts of Burnett's time is all steep inclines and jagged descents, closer in look to the favelas of City of God; for its inhabitants, everything's a slippery slope or an uphill struggle.

This is a place of violence and impotence: practically everyone on screen gets beaten up one way or another, while literally dirt-poor kids, who may just have had the (mis)fortune to survive long enough to witness or participate in the Watts riots of the early 90s, throw rocks at one another, because there's nothing else for them to play with. There's something particularly disconcerting in Stan's inability or unwillingness to make love to his wife (Kaycee Moore), which suggests a pent-up frustration that never quite finds release. Even at the last, a flat tyre thwarts his efforts to take family and friends on holiday; there's just no escape from it all. For all this, the film preserves more poetry than suffering, and details at least as much good cheer as it does degradation. Burnett's young performers are tremendously funny and expressive, while the soundtrack (ranging from Paul Robeson to Earth, Wind & Fire via Dinah Washington) remains both pointed and pleasurable. It has more to do with documentary or photography than the blaxploitation of its decade, and in Stan, Burnett bequeathed us one of the great characters in cinema, an African-American Tom Joad: a decent man bearing the immense weight of a broken-down world on his shoulders, but still trying to raise his children right on the limited means available to him. Despite - or perhaps because of - its roughness, its authenticating texture, this is unforgettable filmmaking.

Killer of Sheep is available on DVD through the BFI.

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