Killer of Sheep

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  • 1977
  • 1 hr 21 min
  • 7.2  (7,445)
  • 96

Killer of Sheep is a 1978 independent film directed by Charles Burnett. This timeless classic is a beautiful exploration of the African-American community living in the Watts district of Los Angeles during the 1970s. The film presents an honest, unflinching look at the everyday lives of the African-American working class through the life of a slaughterhouse worker named Stan (Henry G. Sanders), who is struggling to make ends meet for his family while navigating the complexities of life in a ghetto.

Set against the gritty backdrop of Watts, the film's black and white cinematography brings to life the beautiful visages of a community held together by poverty, social decay, and systemic racism. The film doesn't boast a traditional narrative structure; instead, it's a collection of vignettes that capture moments of Stan's life, his family, and his community at large. The lack of a straightforward story arc adds to the film's realistic and unpolished feel, making the scenes come alive with an unexpectedly sincere and moving depth.

Through Stan's perspective, viewers get a deep and intimate look at the struggles of those living in poverty amid a world of institutionalized racism. Stan is a sensitive, thoughtful man who wants to provide for his family, but he doesn't have the luxury to think beyond the daily struggle of earning a living. His struggles are amplified by his wife (Kaycee Moore), who is slowly drifting away from him due to the stress of their life. Their children watch and learn from their parents, filling in the gaps left behind by their father's emotional absence. Stan's sense of duty, the grace he displays when he's handling the pig carcasses at the slaughterhouse, and the tenderness he shows his children and wife are some of the most moving aspects of the film.

The film doesn't shy away from the harsh reality of life in the ghetto. It shows the desperation of those living without hope or money, the violence that comes with gang affiliations, and the pain of seeing innocent children caught in the perilous cycle of deteriorating social conditions. But even amid all the darkness and trauma, there is a sense of camaraderie, humor, and community that emerges. The characters may live in poverty, but they find value in each other's company and find joy amidst the pain.

The film's strength lies in its ability to capture the raw and unvarnished life of African-Americans in the ghetto. The scenes feel genuine, and the dialogue is an honest reflection of the lives it represents. The actors' performances are natural, adding to the authenticity of the film. Their nuanced and understated portrayals give the characters a depth and richness that elevates the ordinary moments into something poetic.

The film effectively draws its themes through contrasts. It uses the harsh realities of poverty to highlight how open the characters are with their emotions. It depicts the beauty of simplicity, highlighted by extraordinary moments like listening to music, laughing with friends, or admiring the stars from a rooftop. The juxtaposition of eerie silences and ambient sound or the difference between warm home scenes and the cold sterile environment of the slaughterhouse create a vivid sense of atmosphere and contrast.

The director's sparse use of music is one of the film's key creative choices. It is primarily folk and pop music from African-American artists of the time, and while it is infrequent, the haunting melancholy of the score lingers long after the film is over.

In conclusion, Killer of Sheep is a masterpiece of American independent cinema that tells a powerful story of the African-American community in economically blighted Los Angeles. It captures the reality of poverty, family, and community of people that have to survive despite the challenges of their surroundings. The film's raw, unpolished depiction of life captures the essence of the human heart and is still relevant to this day. The nuanced performances by its cast, visceral imagery, and brilliant black-and-white cinematography make this a touching classic that will endure for generations to come.

Killer of Sheep
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  • Release Date
  • Runtime
    1 hr 21 min
  • Language
  • IMDB Rating
    7.2  (7,445)
  • Metascore