Review Essay: Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1977)
This working paper will appear in Black Camera: An International Journal, 9.1, Indiana University Press, Fall 2017.
Killer of Sheep opens on a black screen with the a cappella voices of a mother and child singing a lullaby. The song fades into a disorienting close-up of an angry black man yelling at his teen-aged son, “Boy, I’ll beat you to death.” Sweaty and sick in his undershirt, the father coughs his way out of the frame and then returns to say, “You are not a child any more. You soon will be a goddamn man. Now start learning what life is about now, son.” The boy’s mother silently watches this scene, walks over, and slaps her son hard in the face without a word. Fade to black and the great Paul Robeson sings his baritone version of the same lullaby. Here, in this two-minute introduction, Burnett prepares his viewers for his slice-of-life portrait of a black family living in Watts, California, in the early 1970s.
The main characters – Stan, now a full-grown man, his unnamed wife, five-year old daughter, Angela, and teen-aged son Stan Jr. – move through a non-linear narrative of loosely connected vignettes that pull the viewer inside their world. Their neighborhood looks like a bombed-out refugee camp. We hear strains of music, “The children in the playground…. that’s America to me.” Chaotic scenes of children running away, fighting, stoning each other, plotting, watching, and waiting, are mirrored by the activities of their adult counterparts. The children have energy. The adults do not.
The film is constructed like a blues song. Visual refrains run through the scenes, themes of sadness and happiness intertwine, and nothing much happens. The daughter repeats the dressing ritual of her mother; Stan’s white undershirt references his father’s; Stan Jr.’s treatment of Angela echoes his father’s neglect of a younger sibling; the wife lays her hand on Stan’s arm in the same way that a white woman storekeeper signals her interest. Stan’s wife checks her make-up in the reflection of a cooking pot lid, then the bathroom mirror. Her seductive slow dance with Stan mirrors his sensual love for her – recalled through the touch of a warm teacup on his cheek. Boys hurling rocks re-enact the Watts riots of 1965. The gender wars are savage. Asked who makes the rain, Stan jokes, “It’s the Devil beating his wife.” Stan Jr. squeezes his little sister’s face until she cries. Dancing, singing girls in the street attack an aggressive boy on a bike. The girl who kicks the bicycle-boy is a younger version of the woman who kicks a lascivious “dirty old dog” with a bandaged head.
Everyone is injured and everyone is watchful. Stan’s wife stares out enigmatically through a screen door; her daughter’s haunting sad-clown face presses against the glass of a truck window. Watchful women and girls hang back, on fences, porches, and stairs, image after image. The most disturbing “watching” image is that of little Angela inside a grotesque Snoopy-like head-mask, swinging by one arm from a chain-link fence, sucking her thumb, and staring from large, expressive, knowing, cartoony eyes. A dandy peeps around a pillar ready to dodge thrown objects, just like the young teen who peeps around a wooden shield protecting himself from rocks. Three bored boys stand on their heads on a front porch, counting. As the camera pulls back, the image references the slaughtered sheep at Stan’s workplace, hanging upside down from hooks. Imminent danger is everywhere, creating a sense of dread and apprehension in the film viewer: skateboarders narrowly miss cars; children fly from rooftop to rooftop like birds; three kids on a bike spill to the ground near the front of a moving car; a boy lies under a stopped train with his neck on a rail while his friends try to push the train’s wheels. Nothing happens. All is in static limbo. Continue reading