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Monday, 29 November 1999 18:00
Through 7/5/2007
Reviewed by Diane Carson

With a pitch perfect ear for realistic dialogue and a keen eye for arresting compositions, Charles Burnett created a black-and-white masterpiece 30 years ago. That's when I first saw Killer of Sheep at a film conference, and Burnett's work of art has lost none of its relevance or power. 

It's mid-70s and the Los Angeles ghetto Watts provides the backdrop for thoroughly ordinary and yet unforgettable incidents. Stan, the central character from whom the title comes, is the title killer of sheep who hoses blood off the abattoir floor where he works.


Be aware that several scenes take place there-herding sheep along the alleys to their deaths, hanging their bodies by hooks, skinning their coats to expose the meat, gutting their organs-in other words, the activities that must accompany animals slaughter and preparation for us carnivores. Periodically, throughout the film's 83 minutes, slaughterhouse moments appear as part of Stan's life. Metaphoric connections to Watts are clear though never explicitly delineated in this lyrical piece.


But Killer of Sheep is much more. It revolves around the black community in which Stan moves with his wife, his son and 5-year-old daughter. Kids in the neighborhood fight with each other and tease the girls who have their own pastimes. Stan's friends struggle, as he does, to get by, launching schemes sometimes replete with dark humor, sometimes just sad. In one scene, Stan slow dances with his wife to Dinah Washington's "This Bitter Earth."  It is one of the saddest scenes in film history, and just one in which plaintive music sets the mood as the incidents impart a neo-realistic sense of this world.


Burnett made Killer of Sheep for $5,000 as his MFA film while a UCLA grad student. He wrote, produced, directed, shot and edited it. In a two-page article in the current issue of FLM, available free at Landmark cinemas, he indicts Hollywood's racism and writes also, "Great stories add to our understanding of life. Great stories enhance our shared history."  Killer of Sheep is exactly such a moving, human story. In a new 35 mm print all audiences now have the privilege to discover one of the best independent films ever made, a poetic work that has stayed with me for 30 years. At Landmark's Tivoli theatre until July 5th [2007].

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