Killer of Sheep (1977) * Hidden Gem *


Genre: Drama

Starring: Henry G. Sanders ("Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman"), Kaycee Moore

Directed By: Charles Burnett

Overview: We follow the life and times of a slaughterhouse worker and his family living in L.A.'s Watts neighbourhood.

I don't know Charles Burnett.  Looking up his Filmography doesn't help me associate him with any of the other films he's made, but they don't seem all that popular, or even all that good, frankly. It seems Charles Burnett blew all his chips on his one big famous and ultra-important national treasure, his first feature film, Killer Of Sheep, a film he made while he was studying at UCLA. 

What I learned before seeing it myself is that Killer of Sheep is basically a film studies student's wet dream: genuinely independent, neorealist, socially and culturally relevant, and timeless cinema that made huge waves before being commercially released.  

When Charles Burnett made this film in 1977, he never cleared the music right, and it took 30 years before he was able to do so. Apparently this made every Indie film cinephile pitch a tent in his pants because this lost classic would finally become available to the public. And so it has.

If I had to sum up this film in a word, 'honest' would be the best one.  As is common with neorealist film, the actors aren't professionals and the cinematography might suffer from the common framing and composition, but this helps set the mood as 'something made by and for the people'  and rather than distracting from the story, it carries a naively pleasant quality that injects us directly into the life and times of Watts and its people eking out a life.

Killer of Sheep is full of surprises. For as entertaining and telling as the life vignettes of our overworked and underpaid main character Stan were, I was more moved by the lives of the children. Watching them hop from rooftops, lie down with their heads on tracks while imploring the other kids to push the train car, dirt fights and other games under buildings with little more than beams supporting them is a nice gaze into what our perceptions of health and safety were in the 70s.

For that reason I think The Killer of Sheep works wonderfully thirty years later. That a film can so perfectly get its pulse through to me - a genuinely distinct urban culture that I left with a sense of understanding, well that's a national treasure in my books. 


Performance: 7 Cinematography: 9 Script: 7 Plot: 8 Mood: 9

Overall Rating: 80% (A Leader, Not A Follower)

To be quite honest I was only mildly interested in seeing this, hoping that it would show me some insight into the social anthropology side of things, but I knew that it was ultimately fiction. I double-checked with my 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die checklist and realized that, yes it was there. I didn't need much more convincing and as it was with Les 400 Coups, Stan's life seems all too real for the screen. Add the symbols of herds of sheep going to slaughter dispersed throughout the film and it elevates the message all the more.


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Interesting. I've heard of this, of course, but haven't seen it yet.

Cinematheque Ontario is having a retrospective of Burnett's films this fall. Your review definitely makes me want to check it out!

I actually like the film more than the rating gives. Now I know why it's such a student's ideal film, and of all people, Liam? You love neorealist New Wave, it's right up your alley.
Especially you, don't miss it. 

As with most of the films in the book, this film is overrated, boring, tedious, and simply a film for it's day.  The thing you quickly realise about 1001 and films....and I have watched about 500 of them that, just because somebody tells you something is a classic does not mean it is.  Just because a book tells you that it is a film to see before you die, does not mean it is.  Yes this film is realistic.......yes it shows me a different view of poor black people in America....just trying to make a buck and get on with their lives.......but do I actually feel any emotion watching the film?  In the name of the Father, tells me about the Guildford is acted whereas KOS does not use proper actors.....but the thing is if I want to watch life, I will go and stand on my front door for an hour....and watch people go least that way I have some involvement.  I would rather watch the fictionalised realism of In the name of the father then Killer of reality it should be called PUT ME TO SLEEP!

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