‘Killer of Sheep’ Brings a Working Class African American Family to the Forefront

By Tracy Wang

Original 2007 theatrical poster for Charles Burnett’s KILLER OF SHEEP. Courtesy of Milestone Films.

As the producer, writer and director of ‘Killer of Sheep’, Charles Burnett created an eighty-minutes long portrayal of the daily life of African Americans in Los Angeles’ Watts district. What it lacks in character arc or development, it supplements with tone, scenes and characters that all attain a sense of reality of working class families.

The film begins with an African American father scolding his son, and teenagers playing and fighting in the neighborhood. Then, the scene shifts to the main character, Stan, cleaning the floor and tools in the slaughterhouse that he works long and hard hours. Soon, the lens moves back to his house in which his wife is cooking, and contemplating her beauty while looking at her reflection on the pot lid. With Stan’s family as the focal point of the film, other images and scenes of the neighborhood trickle in, and both the adult life and youth life are shown with details.

Though the film seems to be following the family life of Stan, his wife and his two children, it does not provide a usual plot in which the story reaches a climax. Instead, what Burnett created here is a film that has a rather slow pace and seemingly insignificant story. Rather than building a character arc or reaching a climax point, the film moves forward with an episodic nature in which each scene seems to be in pieces and tells its own story. From the kids fighting with each other to Stan buying an old engine part, we move along with the film in an almost straight line or plot without much rise and fall.

With such an episodic nature, it is hard for us to draw up a complete background as well as built-up of the characters and the plot, and the film rests on a slow and even boring rhythm at times. However, the lack of plot twists and character growth are in fact appropriate to this particular film, because what the film is trying to express is not a dramatic or often-improbable storyline in which the audiences are put on a roller costar ride. What it does successfully is its vivid portrayal of the daily life of a working class African American family who struggles, survives and goes through the daily ritual of everyday concern, desire and happiness.

Through the episodic events, we experience Stan’s unhappiness at work, husband and wife’s struggle to maintain their relationship and the activities the African American kids do outside their houses. Small matters in life occupy the center stage in this film, and we seem to be walking through their daily lives with them side by side. As a result, though the film cannot provide us with dramatic plot points or character developments, the lack of such usual qualities and the focus on daily rituals imitate what we experience in daily life, and make the film one of the best in offering us a rare view of a working class family in the 1970s in the United States.

Other than the realistic feel of the film created by featuring their daily struggles, the ending also artistically closes with more powerlessness that is one of the central tones of the film. Even though it paints a character who is tired and sick of his repetitive job at the slaughterhouse, it does not show much of the slaughterhouse until the ending. Ending the tale of their daily lives with the job that he doesn’t like adds more sense of powerlessness and harsh reality to the film, because it is almost like saying that life sometimes can limit people’s options and that people need to compromise to the reality that we are in.