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Killer of Sheep (1977); and its Connection to My Childhood

February 26, 2014

For part 1 of this ongoing series, begin here.

killer_of_sheep_poster_soderberg_burnettAmong the pioneers of the L.A. Rebellion film movement, Charles Burnett emerged with a bold, pseudo-documentary styled film debut, Killer of Sheep. Combining influences from Italian Neorealism and French New Wave, Killer is Sheep’s focus is fragmented revolving itself more so around the culture of the projects in the Watts district of L.A. than it is a daunting tale of one man’s struggle to sustain happiness and self-fulfillment in his socio-economic condition. Unlike most films of the era centering on the lifestyles of African-Americans, Killer of Sheep’s focus isn’t on one particular device or aspect. Through its non-linear structure the focus is on the neighborhood as a whole: how the streets are children’s default playground, how its local bank is the check cashing amenity of a liquor store, and how home burglaries commonly happen in broad daylight.

Captured in grainy black and white, the neighborhood we set our eyes on may appear as a foreign entity for some viewers. The children we encounter aren’t seen in school, though it gets mentioned. Neighborhood kids instead spend what seems to be weekend days passing the time in groups together under made up games and adventures. Prepubescent boys create their own fun by playing on the tracks of railroads and finding humor in attempting to push stalled cars over the head of another. They throw rocks at moving trains and clumps of dirt at each other as if it were snow on blizzard day. The group of near 11 boys who are introduced playing together appear dirty from their outside play, and most look as though they don’t possess two dimes to rub together. Yet, they couldn’t be happier even lighting up when one of the boys announces he’s going to home to bring back his BB Gun back to play with. Girls on the street dance the latest dances, singing out in unison, or beating up rowdy obnoxious boys. Though a fictional film, Burnett’s direct cinema style of directing makes Killer of Sheep’s authenticity transcend the 1970s well into present day.

When the inhabitants of the neighborhood aren’t the scene’s focus, all eyes are on Stan. A father of two, Stan spends his days at a slaughterhouse where his job is to kill and skin sheep. Burnett further continues his documentarian style capturing the process from a distance standing patiently and discreetly away from the action merely transcribing what he witnesses to the strip of film. As the story continues, Stan comes in contact with different neighbors and friends. Two of them try to convince him to join them in robbery plot to get extra money. When they point out that he could use the money he takes offense at the thought of being considered poor. Stan interjects defending himself against those who are worse off than him like his neighbor who uses the stove as a fireplace. Stan declares that you can’t be poor if you give to Salvation Army, which occasionally he does. Once Stan finally settles at home after multiple encounters and working, he is defeated and discouraged barely finding the energy to give his attention-starved wife a glance.


Killer of Sheep initially left me underwhelmed at the half-existent story that was taking place. I appreciated its charming aesthetic, but didn’t think much of it. However, since watching it I’ve realized it was my expectations that affected my viewing experience. I expected a conventional story arch that would make a point of attacking a particular ideal like most films at the time. Once I realized such expectations in the L.A. Rebellion movement was void, Killer of Sheep began to latch hold of me in a connection much deeper than I was fully conscious of. The reality of these characters reminded me of the neighborhood I inadvertently grew up in under the care of my grandmother and aunt during summer days and nights while my single mom worked two jobs. My four cousins, older brother and I would usually alternate sharing two beds in a single bedroom and a couch in the living room to sleep on. The furniture was tattered, weak and usually crawling with roaches.

When the day began, we’d awake and eat a bowl of food-stamped bought cereal before being quickly shooed out of the door to entertain ourselves for the rest day. Lunch, dinner, and the occasional use of the bathroom was when we were welcomed inside; though we often got yelled at for running in and out of the house too much, thus letting out all the air and making the bills more expensive. We’d play football on a graveled, rock covered front yard because the backyard was too overgrown in wild, unkempt trees to safely walk in. I would angrily shout at my cousins and neighborhood boys for wanting to play two-hand touch football whenever I was involved instead of tackle like they did with each other. We’d play in the dirt making mud pies and pretend collard greens from the leaves of trees we climb. We’d play games in the middle of the street or pile onto the one bike my cousins had for a summer. While one pedaled, the other rode the handle bars and I usually hung on the back spokes which I always assumed would be perfect for a quick, unscathed escape if we ever went down on asphalt. We’d bike to a small room of a convenience store that sold 5 and 10 cent pieces of blow-pops and Now and Laters.  Summer days were filled getting chased by dogs, getting into fights, and spending hours spinning on the tilt-o-whirl at the neighborhood park.


Although I look back on those days with a fondness, I’m aware that it was before my cousins and I were truly conscious of how underprivileged we were. Though we were constantly reminded when fried bologna sandwiches were the only delicacies of the day or during near sleepless nights when I feared roaches crawling into my ears as a couple had previously done to my grandmother’s. Those times were tough but endearing and every time I think of them I remember that I’m utterly blessed to have grown above and beyond it. The experiences I endured as a kid in the hood are identical to what Burnett showcases in Killer of Sheep reminding me just how unanimously similar life can be for a group of people. I was lucky enough to be raised in a much nicer, lower-middle class suburb as I grew older. Reconvening with my cousins today is a reminder of how the depleted disadvantaged aspects of living in the hood can negatively affect the human psyche. Film’s like Killer of Sheep uplift those trapped in such situations by showing them they are represented and aren’t doomed to repeat the cycles they are born in to, even when it’s hard to see light at the end of the tunnel.

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