Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Underrated Movie #40: Killer of Sheep

Title: Killer of Sheep
Year: 1977
Director: Charles Burnett (To Sleep With Anger)
Writer: Charles Burnett
Stars: Henry G. Sanders, Kaycee Moore, Charles Bracy, Angela Burnett

The Story: A worn-out sheep butcher in the dirt-poor Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles tries to put on a happy face for his family. Meanwhile, we get to see the struggles, failures, and occasional victories of his close-knit community.

How it Came to be Underrated: This was a student film, never intended for wide release, so Burnett didn’t secure the music rights. That kept it off vhs and dvd for 30 years, while rumors of its greatness kept its reputation alive. Finally, in 2007, new distributors secured the rights to all of the original songs except one and the movie had a triumphant re-release. (To replace the missing song, they re-used one of the other songs, and it works just fine.)

Why It’s Great:

  1. There had already been a handful of well-made independent films about the black underclass by white directors (one of which I’ll cover next week), but those films inevitably boil down to one question: What is to be done about this? Burnett, one of the first major black independent filmmakers, is more interested in listening to the rhythms of everyday life that persist even in seemingly untenable conditions. The question here is not “what is to be done?” but simply “what’s going on?"
  2. This material could have easily become too bleak, but, like his hero Jean Renoir, Burnett finds passing joys where he can in little vignettes... Two guys try to carry an engine that’s too heavy for them out of a house. A man puts on a record to slow-dance with his wife. Kids gather to enjoy the show as a different husband, caught cheating, hides from his pistol-wielding wife. Each moment tells a story of its own, but those moments also resonate with each other to form a complex group portrait of a neighborhood.
  3. The movie has a marvelous sense of deadpan. I love the scene where some guys sit talking in a parked car, and we don’t realize that there’s no windshield until one of them reaches out to get a can of Schlitz off the hood.
  4. Burnett comes across as a soft-spoken, thoughtful guy in the wide-ranging dvd commentary. Burnett and film historian Richard Pena (my old prof) lament that this once-shocking portrait of poverty in Watts now feels like the calm before the storm. In the '80s, things would really get bad. At least in the '70s, they could still count on each other, before the sense of community fell apart.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Before Burnett, the most prominent black independent filmmaker was Melvin Van Peebles. Check out Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song for a much more proactive take on the problems of inner city L.A.

How Available Is It?: In addition to the commentary, the beautifully restored dvd has a cast reunion doc and more student films by Burnett.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: I Am Curious (Black)!

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