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USA 1979
Directed by
Charles Burnett
80 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

Killer Of Sheep

Writer-director Charles Burnett's first feature, a low budget film set in the Watts area of Los Angeles is very much like Spike Lee avant la lettre. Shot by Burnett himself in black-and-white 16mm as his master's thesis for UCLA it is an often wryly amusing but nevertheless empathetic portrait of everyday life in the ‘hood for its main character, Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), who works in an abattoir to support his wife (Kaycee Moore) and two children (Angela Burnett and Jack Drummond) although he is largely disenchanted with all of them not to mention his lay-about friends.

Shot in cinema verité style with no plot to speak and using largely non-professional actors Burnett simply shows a series of episodes taken from Stan’s daily life – at work in the abbatoir (Burnett does not dwell on the horrors) or doing handyman jobs around the house, helping a friend fix a car, going on a failed trip to the racetrack with some others, all to the accompaniment of an eclectic assortment of blues, jazz and R & B songs and even some classical music. One of the most powerful combinations in this respect is a scene of Stan dancing with his wife in the living room of their home to the accompaniment of Dinah Washington’s version of ‘This Bitter Earth’. She grows more physically amorous but eventually, too tired to **** he breaks away, leaving her to caress the window in compensation.  It is a devastating moment one much-enhanced by Burnett’s grainy black and white photography.

Although at times, particularly early in the film, the sound quality is sub-optimal, Killer of Sheep is a  refreshingly low key but nevertheless insightful portrait of urban poverty for Afro-America.




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