blogging by Andrew Wickliffe

Killer of Sheep (1978, Charles Burnett)

Killer of Sheep is a series of vignettes, usually connected with a sequence at the slaughterhouse (though not always slaughter, but sometimes, so be ready), always connected with a piece of music. Sometimes the music recalls a previous scene or musical selection, creating a narrative echo between the sequences. And even though Sheep is incredibly lyrical in its structure, somewhere in the second half—as enough time has progressed—more traditional plot lines have formed.

Mainly because lead Henry G. Sanders has started hanging out with Eugene Cherry and Cherry really wants to get a car running. Except Cherry’s terrible at bigger-picture car stuff. He can install an engine block but is hazy when it comes to gravity, leading to a couple harrowing sequences.

And then Kaycee Moore has a definite subplot; she plays Sanders’s wife, who’s feeling his depressive episodes in all sorts of ways. Sheep is about being Black working class in the early seventies, with L.A. in some kind of a transition (the neighborhood kids play in unfinished buildings, constructions or destructions), and writer, director, editor, and cinematographer Burnett knows there’s a lot there for a Black woman. But Sheep doesn’t explore it, just how Moore (and the other Black women) experience being around the men.

The setting and time period mean there’s no way Sanders can call what he’s experiencing depression, but he does know there’s nothing he can do about it. He and Moore have somewhat recently moved to the city with their two kids. Jack Drummond plays the tween son, Angela Burnett’s his little sister.

At the open, it seems like Drummond will be the more significant kid. Burnett juxtaposes Sanders’s story with scenes of the neighborhood kids at play. Mostly the boys, though the girls get a memorable scene, so it seems natural Drummond’s going to be the more important. He’s ingesting a lot of toxic masculinity, both out playing and (passively) from dad Sanders, and he’s started bullying sister Burnett.

But since he’s always out of the house and Burnett’s too young to go out on her own—we eventually see she does have friends, but they come over with their mothers—she’s much more present for Sanders and Moore’s unhappy moments together, but also their time apart. Moore and Burnett have a gentle mother-and-daughter arc; lots of lovely moments.

While Moore and Cherry have plot lines and identifiable arcs, Sanders sort of doesn’t. Yes, he’s the main character, yes, it’s about his work contributing to his depression, but if Sanders’s character knows how to verbalize any of those feelings, he doesn’t on screen. And what we do see on screen suggests he doesn’t. Again, he’s trapped in a depression, knowing there’s no way out. Even when he gets exceptionally asterisked job offers—one’s to be a cabana boy for the liquor store lady, the other’s to be wheelman on a hit—we don’t get his reaction. The liquor store scene ends emphasizing the awkwardness and awfulness of the situation (the owner only cashes checks for the Black men she’s got the hots for, i.e., Sanders), and Moore’s the one who shuts down the wheelman conversation.

With his male friends, Sanders can find a comfort he can’t with Moore, which even the kids recognize (though Drummond’s acting out from go). Moore’s trying everything she can with Sanders, but he just doesn’t talk to her. There are some devastating scenes for the two of them. While Sanders gives the film’s best performance, Moore gives the most essential. Sheep simply wouldn’t work without her anxious but muted energy. She’s primed in anticipation, but Sanders is utterly resigned. Burnett mixes the contrary tones beautifully.

Burnett’s most impressive work on the film—well, technically, it’s producer because he made the film—but creatively, it’s his direction and editing. His photography’s excellent, and the writing’s strong, especially for a mostly amateur cast. But the direction is where he’s superlative, whether with the actors (again, the editing and writing working in unison) or with his composition; Sheep’s always phenomenal. The way Burnett bakes looming danger into a film without any violence (against people, anyway) is something else.

And it relates back to the character relationships. There’s a lot of turmoil between Sanders and Drummond, Sanders and Moore, and Moore and Drummond. Their interactions are sometimes foreboding, especially given Drummond’s seeming lack of, well, sense. Things aren’t going right for the family in Sheep, but only Drummond is actively threatening to make them worse. It’s rending.

Thanks to the montage device, Burnett’s able to end Sheep whenever and goes out not so much on a surprise, but still abruptly. The third act’s got a nebulous start time until the film’s end when events become a little clearer. It’s bleak but not fatalistic. There’s always a lot of hope, even as Sanders is drowning in hopelessness.

Sheep’s an exceptional film.

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