Killer of Sheep (1977, 2007)

Filmed in 1977 as a thesis project on a budget of about $10,000, Charles Burnett’s award-winning Killer of Sheep won an award in Berlin in 1981, and was among the first 50 films entered in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. The National Society of Film Critics named it one of 100 “essential films.” And Andrew O’Hehir at Salon.com calls Burnett “the most important African-American director” and “one of the most distinctive filmmakers this country has ever produced.”

But this movie was almost impossible for American film enthusiasts to see until IFC restored it for a DVD release in 2007.

It’s still amazing.

Filmed in black and white, it carries on a meditative tour of the Watts neighborhood in 1977, an L.A. ghetto where many barely have enough resources to feed themselves. Every day presents them with opportunities to compromise in order to get by. It’s a battlefield of temptations and dangers. And the noblest fellow in the neighborhood — Stan, a slaughterhouse worker — is becoming despondent, feeling powerless to change his predicament. He and his neighbors have a common challenge — seemingly inescapable poverty, the pain of which is enhanced by a constant awareness of America’s promises.

Burnett’s meditative style does not draw attention to itself. With his patient gaze, he seems fascinated by children in rowdy play, teenagers caught between confusing societal pressures, and adults who either struggle to live with dignity in their poverty, or who give in to the attraction of crime. The camera’s way of drifting down alleys, through walls, and into characters’ private moments recalls Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire. But there don’t seem to be any benevolent angels in sight.

It’s also to Burnett’s credit that he is able to observe problems of class and race without narrowing his vision to become an “issues movie” or a sermon. His characters have been dealt a bad hand, but some of them are making hard times worse. Despite Burnett’s marvelous eye for the specifics of a time and a place, his subject is nothing less than the human condition, and his mode is closer to epic poetry than documentary or drama. While the acting is sometimes amateurish — Burnett was working with the resources at hand, rather than drawing from a host of accomplished actors — these weaker moments are forgivable in view of extraordinary scenes involving children, and images that are as detailed and deep as those you’ll find in the works of masters like Ozu or Tarkovsky.

[Update: This film was selected for The Arts and Faith Top 100 Films List in 2010.]

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