There isn’t really an overall narrative or story arc present in Charles Burnett’s “Killer of Sheep,” and that’s the point. There’s really nothing more dramatic meant to be expressed in “Killer of Sheep” beyond the experience of drudgery of poverty, and the inevitability of committing and experiencing crime in the throes of poverty. “Killer of Sheep” is a tightly paced and often compelling urban drama about life in the LA ghettos, and it’s worth the watch as a piece of film history nearly lost to the ages. It’s held up in the face of age, more so than many other classics as its managed to represent overtones and themes that are still relevant today.
Director Burnett captures with timeless precision, the sheer wasteland that is poverty for many, and grabs this image through two perspectives. Burnett, through stunning simplistic direction, explores the boredom of young children through the ghettos of LA as they pass the time day to day. They run through abandoned construction sites, get into occasional scuffles, and a few even run across street hoods, but every so often. If you look beyond the seemingly random shots of ghetto life, you’ll see basically a portrait of a life that hasn’t changed much even in the millennium.
True, Burnett obviously didn’t have the millennium in mind when directing this film on only ten thousand dollars, but “Killer of Sheep” takes on a life of its own in its timeless portrait of the impoverished and how little has been changed. We focus on a working man named Stan who is just so tired of the life he lives as a man who kills sheep in a slaughter house. Henry Gayle Sanders is the center of Burnett’s piece, giving a wonderful performance as a man who just has bigger dreams and thoughts on his mind and can’t find the right person to listen to him.
Through his appreciating the smaller things in his life, he’s occasionally presented with the opportunity of crime to further himself financially, as all impoverished folks are. As well he’s presented with new opportunities that he refuses to grasp at fear of losing the crumbling stability in his life. Burnett ponders on life in poverty and the occasional moments of pure clarity and beauty within the misery conveyed with stark black and white photography, and realism that’s almost startling in its raw form. Director Sanders injects a charming humility that makes him a compelling leading man; he hardly seems to be trying at all in the role as this man seeking a different way of life. I mean that as a compliment as his presence on-screen is so natural.
Through it all, Burnett’s picture of life in the ghettos is just beautiful. It’s the picture of the character Stan’s young daughter singing along to her favorite song really sums up what the reason for Stan’s motivation to keep risks aside is. Even in the face of sheer failure and disappointment he keeps going for her. “Killer of Sheep” is a timeless depiction of life in the ghettos, thanks to Burnett’s utterly raw perspective.