Killer of Sheep

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In 1977, when 'Star Wars' and 'Close Encounters' were ushering in the age of the blockbuster, a much quieter revolution was taking place in Watts. Charles Burnett (best known for 1990’s 'To Sleep with Anger'), completing his thesis film for UCLA, made one of cinema's greatest evocations of everyday life, capturing the quotidian details of children at play, a man’s emotional withdrawal, the insidious effects of poverty.

'If ["Killer of Sheep"] were an Italian film from 1953, we would have every scene memorized,' Michael Tolkin once said. Yet rather than basking in instant name recognition, Burnett’s masterpiece only belatedly receiving a proper theatrical release.

Coming right after the blaxploitation craze of the early to mid-’70s and more than a decade before the in-the-hood phase of the early ’90s, 'Killer of Sheep' explores what it means to be a man, a woman, a child just barely eking out a marginally comfortable existence. Stan (Sanders), the increasingly beleaguered paterfamilias who toils in an abattoir, finds fleeting pleasure in dancing with his wife (Moore) before pulling away, or in the caress of his young daughter (Angela Burnett, the director’s child—one of the most preternaturally talented performers ever seen).

Almost every scene is accompanied by a song that deeply enhances its resonance: Stan’s daughter sings along joyously off-key to Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Reasons”; Dinah Washington’s “This Bitter Earth” plays during the aforementioned dance and as Stan hoses down sheep entrails. “Today you’re young / Too soon you’re old,” goes the latter tune—a sentiment perfectly realized in Burnett’s perfect film.

Release details

Duration: 84 mins

Cast and crew

Director: Charles Burnett
Screenwriter: Charles Burnett
Cast: Henry Gayle Sanders
Kaycee Moore
Charles Bracy
Angela Burnett
Eugene Cherry
Jack Drummond

Average User Rating

1.3 / 5

Rating Breakdown

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Milan

I don't remember when the last film was given 6* in TO and I had such high hopes, but alas... "...film offers a firm rebuttal to black stereotypes in cinema while rendering the torpor of the daily grind as a prolonged and beautiful struggle for survival." - Watching this film was less beautiful and more struggle "In terms of story, that’s pretty much it (a series of jokes, social encounters and family ‘scenes’ that coalesce to create a rich and realistic depiction of black urban America), but for a film in which each frame bursts with texture, mood and an aching sensitivity towards life’s small moments of pain and euphoria, there’s little need for more." - Somehow pain and aching are the words that first come in mind after watching "As Stan toils, local youths pass the time in disused railway sidings, scuttling about aimlessly, throwing stones, fighting and laughing: these scenes are as rhapsodic as any in Malick’s ‘Days of Heaven’." - I'd say the stress is on "pass time" and "aimlessly" then on rhapsodic Some good music though. A good début film on a low budget, but it is an insult to many brilliant films out there that TO marked 3* or 4*.