Blog Directory CineVerse: Worth a rental: Killer of Sheep

Worth a rental: Killer of Sheep

Thursday, April 7, 2011

by Erik J. Martin

If you’re looking for a picture that’s a complete 180 from MGM fantasyland, Killer of Sheep (1977, directed by Charles Burnett) is a well-spent if all-too-brief 83 minutes. Here we have a warts-and-all, cinema verite style depiction of African American life in the Watts district of L.A. during the seventies. But that one-sentence description doesn’t begin to capture what you’re bound to experience in this hauntingly beautiful movie.

Expect less of a Boyz In the Hood flavored tale than a Rome: Open City-type study of real people in slice-of-life urban situations, evidently influenced by Italian neo-realism filmmakers like Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica. The main character is Stan, a slaughterhouse employee suffering from existential angst and social disconnection in a mundane, predictable world. This isn’t your conventional narrative with a straightforward plot and series of rising and falling actions built around classic dramatic conflict. Killer of Sheep is more a series of loosely threaded episodes that coalesce to form a skillfully rendered, emotionally expansive impression of an imperfect life among a richly textured culture.

Actually, the fact that you can view this milestone of independent cinema today is something of a minor miracle, considering it was shot for less than $10,000 in the early 1970s and couldn’t be released when it was completed in 1977 because the rights to the music used in the feature weren’t cleared at the time. Thankfully, this fascinating period piece still packs an emotional wallop and hasn’t dated on the viewer impact scale, despite being shelved for 30 years.

Killer of Sheep is definitely worth a rental (it's available on Netflix or at many public libraries) if not a purchase (you can get it through

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