The slaughter rules
KILLER OF SHEEP Directed by Charles Burnett. Starring Henry G Sanders, Kaycee Moore Club, IFI, Dublin, 83 min
JONATHAN Rosenbaum, the great American critic, has argued that “Charles Burnett is the most gifted and important black film-maker this country has ever had.” Yet, despite Burnett’s mighty reputation, Killer of Sheep, the director’s legendary 1977 debut, has remained infuriatingly difficult to see.
Shot over a few weekends in the Watts district of Los Angeles, this sleepy exercise in casual realism made good use of tracks by such artists as Earth Wind & Fire and Paul Robeson. But, with only a few nickels left in the pot, Burnett couldn’t quite afford to pay the licensing costs for the music. The film has, consequently, spent much of the last few decades lurking unwatched in the vaults.
Happily, Steven Soderbergh and his chums have now dug deep and paid for the splendid reissue that arrives in the Irish Film Institute today. Shot in grainy black-andwhite, Killer of Sheep follows an unremarkable slaughterhouse worker as he ambles through an environment which looks as much like an African shanty town as a suburb of the second largest city in the US.
Closer to the dreamy ponderings of current poetic naturalists such as David Gordon Green (a declared admirer) than the noisier organised chaos of vintage Italian neo-realism, Killer of Sheep emerges as a record of an African-American talent who stood outside all contemporaneous artistic movements. This essential disinterment is set to influence a whole new generation.
Working man: Henry G Sanders in Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep