Killer of Sheep Charles Burnett (USA; 1978) Henry G Sanders, Keycee Moore
viewed: 19 March 2022 New York, dvd loaned from New York Public Library
Who’s the killer?
The title of Charles Burnett’s film ‘Killer of Sheep’ sends out a double edged message about the state of mind of the black population in LA in particular and USA in general. In itself the title provokes a kind of derision. The black lead character, Stan works in an abattoir that slaughters sheep, and that’s what Stan is, a man involved in the killing of docile easily led creatures. Is that all that can be said about him? But the title points not only to Stan’s job but also to White people and the situation of American Blacks. The Black people in the USA are the sheep; the more or less docile easily led and misled trampled ex slave population, led on by the white majority towards certain sacrificial symbolic death. The Black population – sheep – people who do what they’re told, only anxious in the main to please.
At the core of Burnett’s script is his main character Stan. Burnett centres his script, about the life of his protagonist the Killer of Sheep who it becomes clear is in the midst of an existential crisis – using ‘existential’ in its philosophical usage pointing to an individual’s own sense of meaning and identity in the world. Stan of course isn’t actually a slaughterer, that’s the high paid work so it’s the monopoly of whites. Stan is a labourer on the killing floor witness to all that happens there. The nature of the work and the endless lines of the meek creatures walking to their death, trigger a crisis in Stan: ‘the Meek shall not Inherit the Earth’. No! ‘The Meek’ shall be butchered on an assembly line and eaten for lunch.
Stan sees something; he does not articulate it. On the face of it he should be ‘content’. A happy man. He has a good wife, kids, house, a job. What’s to complain, is this not the American Dream? But Stan sees something. Within Stan’s psyche there is a premonition, an unidentifiable fear, a feeling of dislocation and insecurity. This what it is to be Black in America: the Whites will never leave you alone. Even when you think they are not there, they surround you everywhere. Stan’s in the racial trap and needs a line of flight. There is no way out for him: there are no whites on whom to focus rage, he is too decent to take it out on his family. For Charles Burnett, Stan’s only escape is into an interiority, into a state of mind of existential disassociation. In one of his last interviews Jungian psychologist James Hillman recalled that Aristotle had written: “Man is a political animal.” He comments that this observation is something never developed or picked up on by White psychoanalysis. Powerlessness and insanity.
Stan as a black cannot be just an individual with his identity centred about ‘job’ or ‘life style’. He is part of a collective. Stan feels like one of the sheep in a flock. Stan sees that his ‘good life’ is in a critical way an illusion. His life situation, whatever its economic properties, can never be separated from the precarious actuality of being Black in America. Whatever his personal situation, his destiny and that of his wife and children is anchored to the unpredictable murderous discrimination perpetuated by Whites on the black community, on the black population of the USA. Stan’s life, however it may look from the outside is as precarious as that of the individual sheep he consigns each day to the knife.
‘The Killer of Sheep’ is structured about relations. The script is organised about the nexus of relationships that comprise Stan’s life: it is not about his individuation. Burnett’s film is not a narrative it’s a cross sectional impression of being Black. The script is about implications, the enmeshing of Stan in the life of his children, in the life of his wife of his community, of his friends and kin. Stan’s situation is not in general different from anyone else in his life, but each of these relationships impinges upon him, each relationship communicating and provoking a different strand of insecurity. Filmed in Watts 10 years on from the Watts riots, it is clear that Blacks have no future outside the ghetto, which is to say whatever Stan does he can only watch the forces of the ghetto close in about him about everyone.
Even as Burnett was wrapping ‘Killer of Sheep’ Watts and other LA ghettos were witnessing the rise of generations of gangs, such as ‘the Bloods’. These gangs discovered that black alienation black deterritorialisation black insecurity could be provided with a mechanistic line of flight in the form of drugs. Based on a criminal subculture that promoted death or wealth they were able to exploit Black vulnerability to White supremacy by creation of a drug culture based on use of and peddling of narcotics. To the devastation of many black communities heroine and crack became a solution to the Black existential crisis, instigating and perpetuating a crisis of the psychotic helplessness for black males in particular. In his portrayal of Stan, Charles Burnett clearly saw this coming.
so listen to the music….
Music in movies has recently become a curse. A serial plundering by Hollywood (and others) of the world’s music resources with a view to using sound to manipulate or distract. Music archives are cynically married to images for their contagious affect. This spectacle of exploitation often promotes in me despair as a song is ripped out of the back catalogue and re-aligned to promote a mood or the legitimise a period or a setting. Authentic contextual use of music is rare. But this is the case in Burnett’s movie, where the recordings of black artists, in particular blues and jazz performers, cover the experience of black people. Burnett’s marriage of sound and picture in context has extraordinary power, conveying not just emotion but also experience The music felt it was being used where it came from and where it was meant to be. The music articulates what Stan cannot. In particular Dinah Washington’s rendering of ‘This Bitter Earth’ with its overtone of Billy Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’ felt like it stopped the film.
In LA in the 1970s Blacks no longer had to fear organised lynchings by white people. But death in the Ghetto one way or the other, perhaps by a police bullet, gave the earth in Watts the bitter tang that Stan could taste.