Killer of Sheep

Still from Killer of sheepI love discovering movies, and as far as obscure gems go, Killer of Sheep is pretty high up there. According to the liner notes, it was made in the 70s by director Charles Burnett as a graduate student project, then languished in limbo, unreleased for 30 years due to copyright issues with the soundtrack. In the meantime, it made the rounds at film festivals and college campuses on a gradually worsening print and slowly became the stuff of legend. Then the Library of Congress (I think) declared it a work of art and the UCLA Archive stepped in to clean up the film and clear the rights.

The movie is shot in black and white, on 16 mm film. The place is Watts in LA. Every image is stark and raw, the whites and the black bleeding off the corners of the screen. It opens with a father yelling at his son for running away rather than helping his brother against bullies, setting the scene. Kids sing, play and run through what seems like a near-wasteland. They fight and throw stones at one another. Soon after, we meet Stan and his family. Stan says he’s falling into his own private hell. He can’t sleep, he stares into space and his wife tries unsuccessfully to get close to him on several occasions. We follow him as he moves through his life, seemingly lost and unfocused, to work, to the store, to his friends. In a heartbreaking scene, he dances slowly with his wife. As she draws him closer, he ultimately pushes her away, and we sense both his pain and her confusion.

There isn’t much here by way of plot. As every other critic you can find online helpfully notes, it’s a collection of vignettes rather than a cohesive story. Not altogether strange for a film shot over two years, in bits and pieces. Yet it’s a coherent whole. The fly-on-the-wall look at what is after all everyday life, gives the film a near-documentary feel and the snippets of story makes for a compelling watch. Fittingly, there’s something furtive and secretive about the style; for all their starkness, the images sometimes seem dream-like, and conversations are often fragments, often mumbled and slightly out of reach. The soundtrack, comprised of tunes from a century’s worth of African-American music, says just as much, if not more.

If the blaxploitation films of the 70s were a technicolor cry at the conventional Hollywood, Killer of Sheep is a barely audible whisper. The oversexed Shaft and Superfly are far removed from the downtrodden Stan, who can’t even be with his wife, much less anyone else. To that extent, Killer of Sheep can be interpreted as a look at masculinity. The playing boys in the movie all talk big, yet are often cowed by the girls.

Killer of Sheep is very much an art film. Nearly every frame could be a still photograph, and it’s filled with pregnant pauses and thousand-yard stares. But there’s no denying the power of the imagery, nor the charisma and physical presence of Henry Gayle Sanders’ performance as Stan (he has gone on to have a long career in acting). Ultimately, Killer of Sheep finds great poetry in the mundane; it’s a beautiful contemplation on a man’s life and a film I would recommend to anyone. Don’t forget to visit the official website .

(The cover blurb proclaims Killer of Sheep to be “one of the greatest unseen American movies ever”, which makes you wonder what else is lying around out there.)


  • Director: Charles Burnett
  • Cast: Henry G. Sanders, Kaycee Moore
29.05.2009 • Permalink