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Killer of Sheep

By June 26, 2008No Comments

Killer of Sheep stillI first heard of Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep when it was admir­ingly ref­er­enced in Los Angeles Plays Itself, Thom Anderson’s witty and know­ing appre­ci­ation of LA in the movies, dur­ing the 2004 Film Festival.

I’ll con­fess that it did­n’t seem all that prom­ising – a black and white, neo-realist, micro-budget drama set among the black com­munity of Watts, LA. But the screen­ing on Monday night, as part of the Wellington Film Society Charles Burnett ret­ro­spect­ive, con­firmed that Killer of Sheep is a stone-cold masterpiece.

Essentially about one man (Henry Gayle Sanders) try­ing to keep his fam­ily going in a com­munity of feck­less­ness and poverty, Killer of Sheep keeps com­ing back to the Watts chil­dren, roam­ing the empty streets, fight­ing each oth­er, throw­ing stones, amus­ing them­selves while the adults either work until they drop or drift off in to dis­in­terest via alco­hol or drugs. I kept think­ing that this could be Cannons Creek today.

Killer of Sheep was a stu­dent gradu­ation pro­ject for Burnett, nev­er inten­ded for dis­tri­bu­tion. The soundtrack alone, full of R&B, jazz and blues clas­sics would prove pro­hib­it­ively expens­ive to any com­pany want­ing to screen the film com­mer­cially. But it is the soundtrack, and the place­ment of the songs, that is the film’s crown­ing glory and I’m glad that no one was temp­ted to re-score the film cheaply (as is done with DVD releases of tv shows from the era).

In hon­our of Killer of Sheep here’s Dinah Washington singing the unbear­ably haunt­ing “This Bitter Earth” from that soundtrack.

Dinah Washington – This Bitter Earth