I 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.