“Killer of Sheep” (1979.) – one of those gems…



There are many stories about “Killer of Sheep”. Charles Burnett made it in the seventies to earn his graduate degree, and since then it was mentioned in the cinema circles as unprecedented in movie history. “Killer of Sheep” was the movie about which I heard a lot before I saw it, therefore my expectations were high. I’m pleased to say that movie surpassed even that.


First, most important movie of Afro-American cinematography is interesting because it’s worth less than 1.000 $, and in it no professional actors were used. That, however, doesn’t affect the quality of the picture.  One of the bizarre things about “Killer of Sheep” is that it entered regular distribution in 2007. , 30 years after it was made. Reason was, music used in the movie, which author couldn’t afford. In 2007. right to use the music was paid almost 150.000 $. Logical question is, why some other music wasn’t used and the movie released earlier, but after I saw the movie I realized that only the music that was used is the only possible choice for the story that unfolds in front of my eyes.

Stan is the “Killer of Sheep”, his job is a job like every other, but after it his life is ordinary one. He’s raising kids, trying to teach them how to be honest and straightforward, trying to keep them from the dangers of the life in the ghetto, he’s having an ordinary relationship with his wife, with all ups and downs, and the director’s approach to the characters is like in some documentary. That is logical, since, as I said before no professional actors were used. Storyline is symbolic, since Stan is so ordinary, and again so different from the stereotypical characterization of the Afro-Americans in Hollywood at the time. Bits and pieces of the ordinary ghetto life are divided by music like the chapters in a novel. That’s the reason why no other music could be used, music is the narrator of the movie.

Stan, main male character of “Killer of Sheep”.

Playlist is really impressive. many Afro-American legends are present: Etta James, Dinah Washington, Louis Armstrong, Earth And Wind, Paul Roebson, Elmore James, Scott Joplin and so on.  All of them are telling the viewer that Stan’s America is “that bitter land” and “my America too”. Realistic like the movie itself, music is the best narrator we could imagine. In such a land, only hope is left for the kids, and while Stan leads sheep to be butchered in a masterful directorial cut we can see the kids in play who are ready to be butchered by their surroundings too. Metaphor is too strong. While guts of the butchered animals is spilled on LA asphalt, we realize that some of that kids will, actually, succeed but most of them won’t. Most of them will be butchered like the sheep, and all they can ever hope is that apathy, agony and grey atmosphere so magnificently made by Burnett. And in all that sorrow there is still a glimpse of hope.

Stan won’t surrender, he won’t accept the realities of the ghetto imposed on him. Realities in which “if you’re nigger you have to kill, so that you could live”. Stan is above that. Stan lives his own life and he isn’t bothered by stereotypical petty gangster games.   Somehow, we have an impression that all that is just a mask. Somehow, I expected that he will burst, do something that will ignite his collapse but that’s probably something that would happen in modern Hollywood. Like Stan in the movie, Burnett is above such cliches.


For Stan, however, in spite of all mentioned above hope is not lost. He believes that even when all is dark, when you don’t know how to go on if you carry on, if you stay true to yourself, nothing is lost. Because, while you’re true to yourself you will always have somebody beside you. And while we have each other, there is always room for hope. “Killer Of Sheep” although he leads the sheep to be butchered doesn’t kill them all. Point made by the movie is… you can kill the sheep, you can spill their guts on the LA concrete, you can be bullied and underestimated because you doesn’t follow that obscure “gangster code”: but you can also count the sheep to put yourself to sleep. And that piece of humanity, our dreams, apathy of post-Watergate America can’t take from us. America in the “Killer of Sheep” is grey, morally dubious and apocalyptic. But when we dream about blues, jazz and love we can survive. Stan says in one conversation while he presses cup of coffee to his cheek that the sensation reminds him of making love to a woman. When the character is capable of that in spite of his surroundings,  hope is still present. It’s like Burnett suggests that ghetto isn’t so bad if you can imagine that.

“Killer of Sheep” is very poetic movie. It’s poetry in motion. We can interpret storyline as we like. Possibilities are left for the viewer to interpret, so thank you Mr. Burnett. One of the movies that are worth reviewing, and surely one of those which I’ll never forget.


RATING: 10/10


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