[SHORT RUN] Though it has been deservedly called one of the greatest American films of all time—it was one of the first films inducted into the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress—Killer of Sheep has languished in the shadows for 30 years, mired in legal hassles over music rights. It is only now receiving a true theatrical release, and despite the passage of three decades, the film has aged more than gracefully. Writer-director Charles Burnett's 1977 work is a stunning example of film as art, a beautiful poem told in moving pictures.
Henry Gayle Sanders gives a brilliant performance as Stan, a working-class father and husband who struggles to make ends meet by slaving away at a Los Angeles slaughterhouse, where he systematically kills sheep. "I'm working myself into my own hell," he says to a friend. Stan's hell involves more than the day-to-day grind of providing for his family: His nights are an unending struggle with insomnia, and he is unable to find enough passion to keep his wife feeling needed and desired.
But the plight of Stan and his family is not what Killer of Sheep is about. Ultimately, it is about everything and nothing at the same time. Drawing deep from the well of cinéma vérité and neorealism, Burnett ventures far from the traditional form of American narrative as he deftly creates a portrait of African-American life in the inner city. With its grainy black-and-white photography and sparse dialogue, Killer of Sheep is easy to confuse with a documentary or perhaps a foreign film. It is certainly not like any other film about black people you're likely to see. This is a deeply intimate examination of life in the ghetto, stripped of all the trappings, conventions and stereotypes that have defined the black experience on the screen. The result is a raw, brutally honesty look at the lives of poor black people, captured with an unsentimental gaze that is as ugly as it is exquisitely beautiful. With the exception of Michael Roemer's 1964 Nothing But a Man, no other film has ever been so honest in its portrayal of black life. And while filmmakers like Spike Lee have followed the trail blazed by Burnett, none has ever come close to this sublime work of art.