Prior to the official release of Killer of Sheep by Milestone Film and Video, I was forced to regularly screen a badly dubbed, bootlegged copy of it for the students of my film history course. Knowing full well how their digital-aged perceptions would be affronted by this submersion into low fidelity, I explained that the true cineaste must be an archaeologist of the cinematic past, scraping through the patina of mass culture to uncover the repressed histories contained in underground cinema. Only by traveling through the grainy images and muffled sounds of this nether mediascape can we reveal the limits of commercial culture as well as the possibilities of new cinematic futures.
This specifically led into a discussion of copyright. As is rather well known by fans of Burnett’s film, Milestone had tremendous difficulties in obtaining permission for the songs used within Killer of Sheep , thus delaying its release indefinitely. What does it mean, I would ask my students, when an African American director cannot use the music of his own culture because multinational corporations own the rights to such works? Should corporate propriety trump cultural inheritance? Is copyright yet another form of neo-colonialism to dispossess those already disadvantaged by the legacies of wealth generated by the possessive investment of whiteness? Why, after all, should free speech be curtailed for the benefit of the entitled few?
Regardless of how one answers the above questions, the result of such a system is the suppression of African American histories from mainstream screens while Hollywood self-celebrates in a masturbatory fashion its own mediocre, saccharine products like Crash , written and directed by white directors who possess the racial consciousness of an amnesiac. It leads to the fetishization of Blaxploitation as the black contribution to 1970s filmmaking, reinforced by such Hollywood sycophants like Quentin Tarantino and authenticated by the remakes of token black directors like John Singleton, while overlooking the substantive challenges that Charles Burnett and other directors from the UCLA film school were concurrently offering against the racist conventions of Hollywood with their own scintillating works that enmeshed themselves into the fabric working-class, African American realities. The release of Killer of Sheep , 30 years after its completion, is the first step in exposing the warped, racist histories that Hollywood loves to tell itself and the myopia of its racial vision.
The effacement of the UCLA school of black filmmakers from traditional film histories, which all-too-often champion great works and directors over any sense of socio-political context, is not surprising since, as Ntongela Masilela notes in Black American Cinema, “the intellectual and cultural coordinates of this Black independent film movement are inseparable from the political and social struggles and convulsions of the 1960s”. Charles Burnett was a part of the first wave of directors who included Larry Clark, Haile Gerima, Pamela Jones, and Ben Caldwell. Members of the second wave were Billy Woodberry, Julie Dash, Alile Sharon Larkin, and Bernard Nichols.
Influenced by the works of Frantz Fanon, Malcolm X, and Richard Wright as well as the Third Cinema movements emerging from Latin America and Africa that challenged colonialism, the UCLA directors mobilized their international political awareness into a vibrant filmmaking style. In place of Hollywood cinematic conventions these directors searched for new aesthetic styles that could grapple with the lived realities of African American, working-class existence in order to adequately translate them to the screen. Killer of Sheep best encapsulates this sense of innovation and exploration.
First of all, the film dismisses standard narrative. Instead, it proceeds episodically with no sense of linear progression. What occurs in the beginning of the film could have equally occurred later; each event’s placement seems haphazard, contingent. The film’s structure embodies its adult characters’ lack of forward momentum by emulating an endless repetition of work, boredom, disconnection, and casual abuse that survival entails. Stan (Henry G. Sanders), the film’s central protagonist, works at the slaughterhouse, sits at home, works some more, sits on the stoop, on and on.
The only modulations against the pounding rhythm of the mundane are the scenes with children playing, where spontaneity and chaos temporarily reign, wildly free from the surveillance and miseries of their parents. But this freedom is only temporary, emphasized by the opening of the film where we see in flashback a young Stan being chastised by his father for not being “a man”. Stan looks frightened as his father reprimands him to pick up a stick or brick so “you knock the shit out of whoever’s fighting your brother”. After his father finishes, Stan’s mother appears, slapping the boy’s face, transforming his frightful expression into pure hate. Within a minute, Burnett deftly reveals the generational cycle of benevolent violence that plagues the underclass. Suffocated by poverty and blinded by circumstances, the poor desensitize their own by instilling anger and apathy.
Despite the film’s seemingly haphazard, episodic structure, each sequence is densely suggestive, emblematic of Burnett’s intimate familiarity with the infinite complexities of its people and places. Rather than trying to offer a singular interpretation of a scene, Burnett instead embraces its ambiguities through innovative uses of framing, editing, and music. This is best exemplified in the scene where a group of children play in an abandoned lot. Some of them start building a fort out of railroad ties. Another boy spins a top, making it dance on a rope. Suddenly, Paul Robeson’s, “The House I Live In”, plays on the soundtrack. He sings, “What is America to me?” He answers with: “democracy . . . /the house I live in . . . /the grocer and the butcher . . . /the children in the playground.” We are unable to tell if Robeson’s lyrics are being employed ironically or genuinely. Are we witnessing the disjunction between the lyrics and the visuals or their mutual infusion?
Have these children been denied the American dream as they play in an abandoned lot instead of a playground, or do they embody it by using their imagination to transform the waste of industry into forts, into something that is their own? The radical contingency of the answer, as well as the children’s existence, is encapsulated by the image of the top, precariously balancing upon a rope, temporarily defying gravity and inertia, two terms that well define the parameters of the adult world.
Yet despite the inertia and gravity of adult life, Stan’s ability to still access his imagination suggests his resistance to complete dehumanization. Early on in the film he holds a coffee cup to his face, telling his friend that it feels like a woman’s body about to make love on a warm night. Although his friend cruelly dismisses the remark, it becomes increasingly important as we witness Stan’s emotional distance from his wife (Kaycee Moore).
In one of the most heartbreaking scenes of the film, we watch a steady medium long shot of Stan and his wife dancing in front of a window. She rubs his bare torso and chest, growing increasingly desirous as we listen to Dinah Washington’s, “This Bitter Earth”. Yet Stan grows more distant, his body becomes more limp as she kisses his neck, until finally walking off, leaving her there emotionally abandoned. This is a man in full depression, hemmed in and emasculated by his job. Yet his earlier comment regarding the coffee reveals Stan’s desire to sexually connect with his wife despite his inability to act.
It’s not coincidental that Stan’s imagination at film’s end finally allows him to connect with her. When his daughter asks him what makes it rain, Stan replies, “Why it’s the devil beating his wife.” Both his daughter and wife smile in separate close ups. His wife then sits on the couch with Stan, causing him to offer his first gesture of intimacy, placing his hand on her thigh and rubbing it as they both look lovingly at each other. Stan’s imagination finally allows him to transcend the everyday brutalities of daily existence to foster genuine forms of connection. He transforms the mundane into the fantastic where a coffee cup becomes a woman’s body and rain symbolizes tears.
In many ways, the film’s celebration of Stan’s imagination allegorizes Burnett’s role as a director. That is to use new cinematic techniques so that we can see the world anew, to make the mundane fresh through new perspectives. Burnett announces this from the very opening of the film when we see a kid poking his head around a board. He looks alarmed, darting his face in and out of view. His face them moves off frame. His hair protrudes from its bottom. His hands move along the edges of the board, trying to avoid something hitting it.
The perspective is too close. We are disoriented. Burnett refuses to reframe for a better vantage. But an excitement suffuses the imagery as we are pulled into a radically new relation where the frame refuses to adhere to Hollywood conventions. Finally, the image cuts to boys throwing dirt bombs in an abandoned lot. Never has childhood seemed so fresh and new. Just as the boys transform the lot’s debris into weapons, Burnett expands the functions of the cinematic frame to finally grasp the lives of those who have been systematically effaced by the limited conventions of commercial cinema and dispossessed by the racist practices of capitalist America.
Milestone should be praised for its excellent transfer of Burnett’s film. Additionally, the disc also contains four shorts by Burnett from 1969 to 2007 as well as the two versions of his second feature My Brother’s Wedding . Particularly engaging is Burnett’s commentary with Richard Peña on Killer of Sheep where we learn both vital details about its production and Burnett’s background. Finally a DVD has done justice representing Burnett’s amazing talent. But hopefully the appearance of Killer of Sheep just the marks beginning of the due recognition that the UCLA school of black filmmakers deserves as a whole.
Other directors such as Haile Gerima, Larry Clark, Julie Dash, Billy Woodberry, among others, need to be more adequately addressed by film history, not simply for their individual achievements, but more so for their collective efforts to pool their resources, expand their political visions, and deepen their international scopes, all of which allowed a group of eager and energetic black film students to make films in defiance of a racist system that still fears to recognize their existence.