A few minutes into director Charles Burnett’s 1977 film Killer of Sheep, a group of black children are playing outdoors on a bright sunlit day. The kids, mostly young boys, grab dirt and small rocks, hurling them at each other while shielding themselves with discarded pieces of wooden fences and boards. Their attention is then averted to other targets, as the kids throw their projectiles to an old railroad switch, its weathered paint peeling from neglect, and to a freight train passing lazily through the large dusty grounds. In the distance you can spot two tall palm trees–the only vegetation in sight.
Viewed out of context, you could swear this film was set in a poor, West African country, perhaps a Third World developing nation hoping to gain an equal footing with richer ones. But it’s not a Third World country: it’s Los Angeles, Watts to be exact, and what Burnett does here is use the genius of his cinematic eye and perception to present the feel of a developing country, a world so separated from the riches of the haves, it doesn’t need the era’s blaxploitation-cliched presence of “The Man” to make its point of inequality. You feel it instinctively, vicerally.
In the midst of this poverty, Stan (veteran actor Henry G. Sanders) makes his living, as the title implies, preparing and slaughtering sheep in the local stockyards. He has a loving wife (Kaycee Moore) and bright, bubbly baby daughter, but his life is filled with depression, fatigue and self doubts. His wife is worried he has no interest in her anymore (Stan seems to suffer from impotence), despite her continued attempts to look beautiful for him, and their young son is rarely home preferring to hang with the neighborhood kids most of the time.
If the troubling thoughts and family stress weren’t enough for Stan to deal with, outside forces threaten him and his family. Stan’s son spends so much time outside with friends, he exposes himself to danger from criminals. Shady pals remind Stan how his slaughterhouse job keeps him poor, while tempting him with illegal work for quick bucks. The pressures keep Stan in a malaise (a vastly different take on the macho stance of many black male lead characters during the 1970’s) and this constant fatalistic drone stays through the movie with Burnett’s long takes and melancholy music, most notably with the song “This Bitter Earth” sung by Dinah Washington.
In an astounding use of music in a soundtrack, Burnett uses this song in two different ways, conveying two different meanings: one as the background for a tender, loving moment between Stan and his wife as they try their best to keep whatever romance exists between them intact, the other as a devastating fatalistic view of the future for Stan. He’s shown slaughtering sheep while the song plays. Is he using the song played in his head to pass the time from the dismal rut? Is the song a metaphor for the dehumanizing situation he’s placed in with no way out? Both explanations work for me. It’s an ending that left me slackjawed in its profundity, one of the best I’ve seen in any movie ever. You may be fretting that I’ve “given away an ending,” but believe me, telling you the ending will not compare with you feeling the ending. That’s because Burnett knows the human condition better than most filmmakers. It’s taken thirty years to have this masterpiece finally shown, but the theatrical release of Killer of Sheep is truly a case of better late than never.