Blog Directory CineVerse: Diving deep on "Sheep"

Diving deep on "Sheep"

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Charles Burnett may not be a household name like Spike Lee, but he’s unquestionably one of the most talented and respected African American directors. His breakout work, Killer of Sheep (1978), remained widely unseen for decades due to music rights issues, but it has been restored and is fortunately now accessible to millions. The CineVerse sleuths fine tooth combed this picture last week and arrived at the following observations (click here to listen to a recording of our group discussion).

What did you find interesting, unexpected, or memorable about Killer of Sheep?

  • There is no cohesive plot or structured narrative. Instead, the filmmakers present often disjointed vignettes in the lives of an economically challenged couple and their children and friends, with many sequences seeming unscripted and unrehearsed.
    • The film opens with a non sequitur of sorts: the scolding and physical punishing of a boy by his father and mother for not protecting his young sibling from a bully.
  • With its stark black-and-white canvas, gritty location shooting, and choppy editing, Killer of Sheep often looks and plays like a documentary as well as a work of cinema verite and neorealism. Italian neorealism, popular between 1945 and the late 1950s, was a film movement featuring movies set amidst the working class and economically disadvantaged that were shot on location and which mostly cast non-professional actors.
    • Roger Ebert wrote: “One scene follows another with no apparent pattern, reflecting how the lives of its family combine endless routine with the interruptions of random events. The day they all pile into a car to go to the races, for example, a lesser film would have had them winning or losing. In this film, they have a flat tire, and no spare. Thus does poverty become your companion on every journey.”
  • Likewise, the story doesn’t provide character arcs, moralistic payoffs, conquests, or predictable beats.
    • TCM reviewer David Sterritt wrote: “Burnett's decision to make Killer of Sheep was prompted by his intense dissatisfaction with movies that treat working-class life simplistically, solving complicated human problems in unrealistic and unimaginative ways, reuniting the couple, letting the team win, having the workers join a union – so everyone can bask in a happy ending. Burnett isn't interested in simple solutions, or even complex ones, because in his experience most real-life problems aren't resolved at all; folks just muddle through as best they can, and when one difficulty fades there's usually another to take its place. ‘What people are really struggling for is to endure, to survive,’ Burnett once told me, ‘to become adults and maintain some sort of moral compass.’”
  • There are no star actors; every face is fresh because we’ve not seen these performers before.
  • The soundtrack is outstanding, with the film benefiting from a variety of musical styles and African-American artists, including Dinah Washington, Etta James, Paul Robeson, Elmore James, Louis Armstrong, Little Walter, and Earth, Wind & Fire. In fact, this film’s widespread release was delayed for nearly 30 years because the filmmakers couldn’t secure the music licensing rights, and Charles Burnett wasn’t going to compromise and release a cut of the movie without these key songs included.
    • Adam Grinwald, a critic for, wrote: “Burnett’s diverse selection of tunes works to help convey the movie’s wide pallet of emotions. It also serves as a bridge between the ‘high’ and ‘low’ cultures, just as the film itself works to combine classical filmmaking techniques with contemporary themes.”
  • Incredibly, Burnett created this film in the late 1970s for under $10,000, which demonstrates the power of resourcefulness, creativity, perseverance, and strong cinematic storytelling skills.
  • The picture remained mostly unseen by the masses for three decades, although it was among the first class of films to be entered in the National Film Registry in 1990 for its historical importance, it won the Critic's Award at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1981, and it ranked among the 100 Essential Films ever made by the National Society of Film Critics in 2002.

Major themes

  • Being stuck in a continual cycle of poverty, futility, and soul-crushing dissatisfaction. Stan is forced to work at a slaughterhouse, where he kills sheep, guts their carcasses, and preps the remains. Even the pastimes and off-work opportunities he engages in or considers only serve to keep him stuck on a metaphorical treadmill; he can’t make extra money fiddling with car engines; he doesn’t want to work at the local liquor store for fear of being robbed or shot; and he turns down his friends’ offer to participate in a revenge killing.
  • The struggles of the working class and inner-city families to get ahead, find fulfillment, and pass on happiness and a better future to their children. We witness how Stan, his wife, his son, and his friends are challenged by their economic circumstances and environment.
  • Times are hard for honest men. Stan is a father and husband with values and a strong work ethic, but he experiences hopelessness and powerlessness. Like a helpless sheep or lamb to the slaughter, he feels trapped in a predestined life of inevitable suffering.

Similar works

  • Italian neorealism films, including Bicycle Thieves, Rome: Open City, and Paisan
  • Song of Ceylon and Night Mail, directed by Basil Wright
  • The Southerner, directed by Jean Renoir
  • George Washington, directed by David Gordon Green
  • The early films of Jim Jarmusch and Richard Linklater, like Stranger Than Paradise and Slacker
  • Little Fugitive, which also depicts a particular time and place (New York in the mid-1950s) and is documentary-like

Other films by Charles Burnett

  • To Sleep With Anger
  • The Glass Shield
  • The Wedding
  • Nightjohn

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