Why Killer of Sheep remains a masterpiece of independent cinema

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Charles Burnetts sheep killer is a criminally underseen piece of indie American cinema that has spent most of its life completely inaccessible to moviegoers. sheep killer sadly suffered a similar fate to other overlooked indie films like haha, Knives and SkinWhere Luce. And yet, it’s a film whose reputation precedes it, with its accolades racking up higher than any picture with its decades-long unavailability could possibly expect. Often at the top of lists of the most important works of independent cinema, the film has been placed among the best American films ever made by a BBC poll of critics and filmmakers, and it’s easy to see why. Beyond its well-deserved accolades, the film is a masterclass in the possibilities of filmmaking that remains just as powerful as it was when it was first released.

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Shot on a low budget of $10,000, sheep killer demonstrates how much can be accomplished with minimal cost. Without a big budget to ramp up its production, Burnett’s film takes the fundamentals of cinema and uses them to express something utterly poignant. In terms of production costs, it helps that Burnett handled almost every aspect of production himself, writing, directing, producing and editing the film while also serving as cinematographer. Burnett’s mastery of all crafts aligns with the do-it-yourself philosophy of independent auteur cinema.

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Image via Third World Newsreel

Unfortunately for moviegoers, the film did not receive wide release due to Burnett’s inability to license the film’s musical rights. They were eventually purchased in 2007 for $150,000 so the film could finally be released to a wider audience. The high cost of music licensing makes sense, as many needle drops feature music world superstars, with Louis Armstrong, Dinah Washingtonand earth, wind and fire play alongside classical composers Sergei Rachmaninoff and George Gershwin. Burnett’s diverse selection of tracks helps convey the film’s wide palette of emotions. It also serves as a bridge between “high” and “low” cultures, just as the film itself strives to combine classic cinematic techniques with contemporary themes.


While it’s pointless to attempt a traditional plot synopsis, it can be loosely summarized that the film follows Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), slaughterhouse worker and father of two children, and his wife (Angela Burnett) as they go about their daily lives in an underprivileged neighborhood of Los Angeles. When not working on household chores and planning to fix his unreliable car, Stan earns his wages by slaughtering sheep and tying up their corpses for processing. It’s a horrible, thankless job that few would choose if they had a better option. He has little choice in the matter and, in the end, he has little to show for his hard work. Around him, his neighbors scramble to find ways to make a quick buck, even occasionally trying to recruit him into their business. Invariably, he refuses them. He’s too honest of a person, even though his honesty keeps him stuck exactly where he is.



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Image via Third World Newsreel

Somewhere near the middle of sheep killer, two of Stan’s acquaintances approach him for help with a revenge murder that would help him earn money. Many movies would use this pacing as an opportunity to push the plot forward or steer it in a different direction, but sheep killer resist. It’s a plot point that doesn’t come back. It’s not that kind of movie. It’s not about dramatic, life-altering events that some may choose to try to escape the futility of their endeavors – it’s about the endeavors themselves, and everything in between. Burnett’s decision to strip the film of traditional plot rhythms predates the laid-back, aimless narratives of Jim Jarmusch and Richard Linklater. While things remain gripping for the 83-minute runtime, not much really happens. His characters simply exist, work to get by, and live in the meantime. Burnett serves up a slice of life where every day typical events take center stage. Those expecting particular instances of drama will be left insatiable. Instead, audiences are presented with a series of understated vignettes whose meaning lurks deep below the surface.


The film swings deftly between Stan, his friends, and the neighborhood kids who seemingly have little to occupy their time. Children engage in clod battles and jump dangerously from rooftop to rooftop without adult supervision in sight. Where are their parents and why aren’t they watching over them? Presumably, they’re all like Stan, too busy working to have time to watch them. It’s hard not to look at Burnett’s deft juxtaposition between old and young and see a statement made: it’s far too likely that these children will grow up with as few opportunities as their parents. It’s a vicious circle that can’t be escaped, and Stan’s efforts are enough to survive.

At one point in the film, one of Stan’s friends comments that he never has any money. “I’m not poor,” Stan retorts, and he continues to distinguish between him and another neighborhood man who eats “only wild vegetables picked from a vacant lot.” This exchange shows Burnett’s talent for comic writing, but it also serves as a pivotal point for the film. Stan is a proud man of his ability to earn an honest living through regular work, but in the end, he has little left beyond his ability to feed and support his family. The figures appear to be running on a metaphorical treadmill, only able to stay where they are and avoid falling.


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Image via Third World Newsreel

It is clear that his inability to escape the class struggle gets to him. He struggles to connect emotionally to his wife. She asks him why he’s not smiling anymore, and he doesn’t seem to have a good answer. Yet, as devoted as sheep killer is to its depiction of a struggle without purpose is, it is not cynical enough to refrain from depicting moments of joy. Near the end of the film is a scene in which Stan and his wife dance slowly and passionately to Dinah Washington’s “This Bitter Earth.” Later, Stan has a tender moment of parental intimacy with his young daughter. These are moments of immense beauty nestled among much futility and misfortune. Burnett wants us to understand that these are ordinary people, fully capable of love, joy and beauty.


Stan and his family are at the center of the narrative, but many secondary characters contribute to the life of the film, with a credited cast list of more than 70 names. Influenced by the gritty verisimilitude of the Italian neorealist movement and the early films of Satyajit Ray, sheep killer uses non-professional (or at the very least, mostly unknown) actors. The absence of a recognizable star lends special credibility to the film. It would be easy to believe that the film is a documentary. The verisimilitude achieved by the amateur actors helps the film portray real people living real lives without the melodramatic rhythms of fictional narratives.

Like the Italian neorealists, Burnett uses his film to make a statement about a part of society. Instead of post-war Italy, he looks sympathetically and humanely at life in a downtown Los Angeles neighborhood where many of its residents can only pass through but continue to persevere nonetheless. It is a life of misery and difficulty but also of joy, happiness, beauty and humor. The movie is set in the 70s, but it could just as well be set today. His intention remains the same. Its message is timeless, and modern-day viewers will likely be equally affected. The struggles described in sheep killer continue to exist today, and Burnett’s film is more effective than ever.


sheep killer is a film that is likely to have a lasting influence for years to come. David Gordon Green got a lot of inspiration for his debut george washington. hip hop artist Def. Mos used a tinted still from the roof-jumping sequence for his 2009 album “The Ecstatic.” Beyond its influence, however, sheep killer is a work that shows the magnificent potential of what a film can be. Like the greatest works of art, what they symbolize is open to interpretation. The slaughtered sheep, the building leap, the broken down car all make sense of the film’s larger intent. One can parse out what each of them means, but Burnett leaves it all open enough for viewers to piece together their own meaning for each specific symbol. It’s a complex work filled with layers of meaning and symbolism, with plenty to ponder once the end credits roll.

Hopefully, generations of young filmmakers will see sheep killer and feel inspired to create something of their own. Charles Burnett has proven that it is possible to do this on a modest budget. The result of his labor is something magnificent: a deceptively simple film with a passionately beating heart at its heart. It shows that sometimes cinema doesn’t need action, technological effects, big stars to carry the weight. Sometimes all it takes is the bare essentials – and an artist to direct it – to create something profound.


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