You probably haven’t heard of the film “Killer of Sheep.” Contrary to first impressions of its horror-esque title, the film is about an African-American family in the 1970s in Watts, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Los Angeles. It’s regarded as one of the best movies in film history, selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress and chosen by the National Society of Film Critics as one of the 100 Essential Films. Despite the high praise garnered from almost all of its critics, “Killer of Sheep” lies dead in its obscurity.
Directed by Charles Burnett in 1977 as his senior thesis from UCLA’s School of Theatre, Film and Television, “Killer of Sheep” soon became a classic among the academic elite. Burnett made “Killer of Sheep” on a minuscule budget of about $10,000 and used his friends and family for actors. The film’s academic reputation, despite its humble beginning, was due to the somewhat reticent nature of the release — Burnett only showed his film in colleges, museums and churches during the first release.
“Killer of Sheep” wasn’t always a classic. Janet Maslin of The New York Times gave the film its first review and criticized the very aspects later exalted by critics. She called it uneventful and chastised Burnett’s use of non-professional actors who mumble or overact some of their lines.
Upon first viewing “Killer of Sheep,” I would have agreed with Maslin. The film is about two hours long but without any extensive or complex storyline. The plot follows Stan, a black man trying to take care of his family and fit into the mold of masculinity forced upon him by the culture of Watts. The black and white episodic takes of Stan and his family can be boring as we watch them walk around the neighborhood, cook and struggle through daily life. Stan’s day job provides the origin of the title, as his work is the methodical butchering of strung-up sheep in a slaughterhouse.
However, when I further researched Burnett and his motivations behind “Killer of Sheep,” I realized the full value of the film. Burnett was part of a cohort of filmmakers responding to the Blaxploitation film movement of the ’70s, where Black actors were used as a crutch to promote Black stereotypes. “Killer of Sheep” exists as a reverberation of that misrepresentation, because Stan and his family are not as riveting as the Black stereotypes perpetuated by other films of the time — they’re fully realized characters with flaws and dreams that cannot be achieved because of their circumstances. Burnett did not create his characters to entertain, but to inform in a time period where emotional material like this was lacking.
Burnett was entirely disinterested in Hollywood and the mainstream media, as they were the perpetrators of Black stereotypes against which he fought. As he stated in an interview with The Boston Globe in 1979, “I can’t see my films being produced by Hollywood … My films are not entertaining. They don’t appeal to a wide audience. They’re limited to an audience that has serious concerns.”
So maybe Burnett never wanted recognition for “Killer of Sheep.” People have tried to raise awareness for it with accolades and a rerelease of the film in 2007 after legal issues with its soundtrack were worked out, but maybe that isn’t what Burnett wanted. He’s described as the lone wolf of cinema, doing his own thing. Maybe “Killer of Sheep” is exactly where it was always supposed to be — anonymously on lists of the greatest films in the world.