I was greatly honoured to introduce Charles Burnett’s masterpiece, Killer of Sheep, at the VIFF Centre on 31 August 2022. The below is a write-up of the brief comments I made about the film during my intro to the seven audience members who came to watch the film – a sad but lucky number of viewers, since this film surely deserves many more spectators.
Perhaps part of the reason why Killer of Sheep did not attract a large audience for this screening is that the film is overlooked somewhat – not in the sense of being ‘underrated’ (which is not really the case; the film is very highly rated), but because it took years for the film to achieve any wide release because Burnett had not secured the rights to the film’s remarkable soundtrack, which includes work by Dinah Washington, Paul Robeson, Louis Armstrong, Scott Joplin and others.
While it took about 30 years for the film to achieve a wide release in c2007, even its initial run in 1977/1978 (when it won the Critics’ Award at the Berlin International Film Festival) came some four or five years after initial production – with Burnett shooting the film between 1972 and 1975.
This long, slow production and gestation means that Killer of Sheep is a kind of ‘underground’ film, one that (for me, unfairly) gets only low attendances while much more mediocre fare is significantly better attended (two women left the screening at which I gave the intro because they were in the wrong theatre – leaving those seven behind – notably all ostensibly white or Asian men, though I shan’t get too much into the possible meanings of that here).
This long, slow production and gestation of Killer of Sheep also befits the way in which it offers to us a different conception of cinema, harder to understand than regular cinema.
For, some might say that, with a production budget of US$10,000, Killer of Sheep necessarily has ‘flaws’ and/or ‘limitations’ – because the dominant capitalist model of cinema dictates that a lack of budget is a deficiency, and that to make a ‘good’ film ‘in spite of’ no money is somehow a grand achievement – to be rewarded in some cases with much more money for one’s next film.
But I might contend that in fact those ‘flaws’ are not just the core strengths of Killer of Sheep, but also necessarily a part of a film that presents to us a possible world beyond the atomised world of selfish greed, of self-serving individuality, that is at the heart of neoliberal capitalism, and which is the backdrop for Burnett’s film.
In order to explain this, I’ll offer up a key example of one of the film’s ‘flaws’ – which features regularly in the film – but which is in fact at the heart of what it is doing/saying, and which makes of it such a work of genius.
It happens regularly when working with non-professional actors (and, in my experience, also with professional actors) that they cast looks on occasion at the camera. Most filmmakers would edit such moments out of their films; apparently (but I don’t really believe or buy this), it destroys the ‘illusion’ of cinema (because apparently cinema is supposed to be an immersive illusion or ‘escape’ from ‘reality’ – whatever that is).
However, in Killer of Sheep, it happens on various occasions that actors look directly at the camera – and the scenes play on and play out fine, with me as a viewer not feeling that this diminishes my experience of the film, but that instead it enriches it.
Above are three examples.
For, as per long-standing analyses of images where figures look back at the viewer, there is a sense in these gazes from the screen not only that the film’s viewers are not detached, unseen observers peeking voyeuristically into the lives of the figures on screen, but rather that we are implicated into that world, and by extension the film itself.
One can think about it this way: at time of filming, these actors looked at the camera and/or at Burnett. In doing so, they ‘broke character’ and made it clear that they were aware that they were in a film – i.e. ‘acting’ in front of a camera. Burnett does not edit this out of the film; he keeps it in – repeatedly. He wants us to know that this is a film; that these are not professional actors; and most especially that he and we are connected with them.
Killer of Sheep is a key text in what has come to be known, thanks to Clyde Taylor, as the L.A. Rebellion – a group of Black filmmakers making films out of UCLA in the 1970s, many being taught by Teshome Gabriel. Making specifically anti-commercial (‘rebellious’) and proactively ‘Black’ films lends to Killer of Sheep and others from this ‘school’ a political edge.
For, what the glances to the camera come to mean, when read with this political outlook in mind and thus through the lens of race, is that the Black lives that we see onscreen are not just Black lives objectified to satisfy the curiosity of (white) film viewers. Rather, it means that Burnett (and others from the L.A. Rebellion and beyond) give a dignity to these performers, as well as to the characters that they portray on screen.
More than this, it presents to us a non-capitalist view of the world and of cinema – and one that is exemplary not just of a ‘socialist’ mindset (Charles Burnett as a would-be Marxist filmmaker making anti-capitalist films), but which also reflects the necessarily structural exclusion of Black people from that capitalist world – and from its regular cinema.
How is this so?
Well, if as suggested above the over-arching ethos of white western modernity is the sovereignty of the individual (personal liberty, individuality, greed), then the structure of modernity that allows for such sovereignty is in fact a racialised structure that allows for white sovereignty at the expense of Black ‘sovereignty.’
Figure it this way: the individualised white hero rescues the individualised white woman from the Black horde in numerous early movies. Thus the individuality of the white hero can only be made real if it is distinguished from the non-individuality of the non-white other (and even though the white woman is in this schema also reduced from being a subject to being a stake and/or an object in order to validate that white individual male hero, the non-white other is also structurally necessary here to make her believe that being an object is better than being outside of the subject-object binary entirely; to be an objectified white woman is ‘better’ than being Black and abject).
So… to be Black in white western modernity is to have no individuality, which is the preserve of whiteness alone.
But rather than offer to us a counter-claim to individuality – a movie with a Black hero/superhero – Burnett instead rejects the hero/superhero model altogether. He rejects individuality altogether. And in its place he offers to us a vision of a different kind of living – living not an atomised, alienated life, but living in a community.
To be clear: Blackness is excluded from individuality anyway. And in being excluded from modernity – and necessarily so, since it is that exclusion from modernity that makes whiteness itself ‘modern’ – Blackness necessarily lives ‘otherwise.’ But rather than have that exclusion imposed upon Blackness in the form of white supremacist (racist) films that depict the above-mentioned Black hordes, Burnett takes that exclusion and turns it positively into community.
In the language of the wonderful Fred Moten, to be Black is effectively to consent not to be a single being – with consent being the key term here. For, to consent not to be single is not to be shunted into the ghetto against one’s will – although this of course happens; it is, rather, to choose community, to choose contact with others, to choose not to be a single being.
And so the looks to the camera create community; rather than a cinema of individuality, Burnett gives to us a vision of a cinema that consents not to be single, and which asks us viewers also to consent to that.
Since cinema is a key tool in propagating the ethos of individuality (I want to be a film star; I want to be exceptional; I want to be a great movie director, etc –> self, self, self), the lack of budget in Burnett’s film is neither flaw, therefore, nor is it an obstacle ‘around which’ Burnett somehow skilfully managed to get. It is absolutely and structurally necessary that his film be ‘cheap’ – just as it is necessary for his actors to look at the camera. It demonstrates that they knowingly consent to be in this different kind of film; that they consent not to be a single being.
But let us not over-simplify Burnett’s film. For while the amazing shots that we see in Killer of Sheep are regularly crowded and involving people – especially children – piling on top of each other and touching each other – and not being single – so is Burnett’s film filled with harrowing ‘singles’ (shots featuring people on their own).
Is Burnett contradicting himself here, then – and do we see that any use of a ‘single’ demonstrates that he is not the communitarian filmmaker that I am claiming him to be?
No. For, Burnett’s film, in its tale of a man, Stan (Henry G. Sanders), who is struggling to make ends meet, and who is invited to commit a crime and to try various other schemes in order to survive, very clearly charts how even though to be Black is not to be single, there is nonetheless the pressure of living in a capitalist society bearing down on these characters – and that this pressure does indeed isolate them.
The tension between the group shots and the singles, then, is the very struggle for survival in Black America; for while to be single when white is a sign of empowerment, to be single when Black is to be isolated from the community – something that capital precisely needs to happen to prevent that Black horde from realising its own strength and taking power.
Killer of Sheep powerfully and skilfully, then, presents to us the impossibility of being Black and American: it is not to be single, but it is also to have forces weighing down on you that try to force you into not an empowered but a lost singularity – the singularity of depression and despair.
So Burnett does not present to us a Wakanda-style fantasy of Black empowerment; rather he presents to us a ‘reality’ of community coming together, but also being torn apart by the pressures of capital.
It is for this reason that various people consider Killer of Sheep to be a ‘realistic’ film. However, I wonder that the term is a bit misleading; for while it does indeed present to us a ‘reality,’ it nonetheless is an incredibly considered film.
Take, for example, the continual cuts between children playing and animals in the abattoir where Stan works. A form of montage that is straight out of Sergei M. Eisenstein (one thinks of the cut from the workers to the cow being slaughtered in Strike, USSR, 1925), this is expressive and abstract (it creates a metaphor rather than the ‘telling it like it is’ that we typically understand ‘realism’ to be), as it suggests to us that these kids – undifferentiated in the eyes of white western modernity – are lambs to the slaughter, heading for a world in which they will be alienated, alone.
Furthermore, there are frequent associations in the film between femininity and dogs. We first see Stan’s daughter, Angie (Angela Burnett), in one of the most striking images from all of cinema: in a dog mask. We hear dogs barking when we then see women in the street. And Stan’s wife (Kaycee Moore) first arrives on screen just as we hear the line ‘give a dog a bone’ from the nursery rhyme, ‘This Old Man.’
While some critics have perhaps rightly critiqued Burnett for giving short shrift to women in his film, I do not think his point is to make a derogatory comparison here between femininity and the canine. Rather, I think, Burnett wishes to demonstrate suggestively – expressively, via artifice rather than through ‘realism’ – that a woman’s life is a ‘dog’s life’ in Black America.
For, let us return to the mythos of the white male subject rescuing the white female object from the abject Black horde. The Black woman does not even feature in this schema. And so Burnett uses the canine to get at the ‘impossibility’ of Black femininity – as per the various conceptualisations of the same by writers like Michele Wallace, Evelynn Hammonds, Zakiyyah Iman Jackson, Rizvana Bradley and others. That is, while Blackness in the form of Black ‘masculinity’ is structurally ‘outside’ of white western modernity (subject-object-abject), Black femininity does not even feature (subject-object-abject-[animal-plant-]nothing; or, perhaps more accurately, subject-object-animal-plant-abject-nothing). Its, or her, very existence, then, is ‘impossible.’ And Killer of Sheep portrays this through the soundtrack.
Finally, I added in my introduction to the film that Killer of Sheep does not really have a coherent structure. Things happen episodically – meaning that there are one-off events that in a mainstream (white) film might lead somewhere and/or to which one might return. But in Killer of Sheep, single things happen, and they do not come back – and the centrality of Stan as the protagonist even kind of peters out as the film progresses.
For me, the way in which mainstream cinema ties up loose ends (there is little that is random, happens once and then never comes back) effectively demonstrates belief in a god who gives meaning to events – even if ‘bad’ ones. Or rather than belief in a god, it is cinema functioning as a way of inventing that self-same god in order to justify whiteness as the ‘chosen’ (or ‘supreme’) race (white supremacy).
To portray a universe in which stuff does not happen for a reason, in which that character does not come back because that incident in fact had a hidden meaning, in which there is a not an underlying structure to the world… is to give expression to how to be Black in America is to lead a ‘godless’ life.
This is a not a question of whether one believes in a god or not, or whether there really is a God or not. It is about how a ‘structured’ life in which things have meaning is a white creation for whiteness’ sake; hence white people harrumphing in an entitled fashion when things do not go their way and/or when they are confronted with chaos. And it is about how an ‘unstructured’ and ‘chaotic’ life in which things do not have meaning is the flip side of that ‘order’ – not a Black ‘creation’, but created for Blackness by a white structure in order to allow that white structure to exist as such. Whatever god it is that white people think blesses them with order, entitlement and privilege (however illusory this order at times proves to be*), that god does not exist for Black people, who are not blessed with order, entitlement and privilege, but their opposites.
And so even in its very ‘structurelessness,’ Killer of Sheep proves itself to be a magnificently profound film – and an incredible piece of work given that this was initially a student film. If only more students wanted to engage in such a political and philosophical way with their filmmaking – regardless of whether or not they have the gumption to shoot feature films instead of shorts while still studying (most students do not do this; they stick to shorts, hoping to make their way towards features later and when paid handsomely to do so and with big budgets – i.e. it is progress towards the affirmation of the self, self, self; it is what they have been told to do since birth; it bespeaks the demography of the university and/or film school).
While I might feel sad that Killer of Sheep was the only exemplar of the L.A. Rebellion on offer as part of Ragged Glory, the series in which it belonged, its inclusion is fabulous. And while it has inspired filmmakers like Skinner Myers and Merawi Gerima to go on and to make exceptional films about Black American life in the contemporary moment, I hope that it gets more screenings, more viewers (more than seven viewers) and that it brings about a different cinema and a different world – one in which we collectively consent not to be a single being, and to build finally a true world community worthy of the name.
In this sense, a film like Killer of Sheep is not great ‘despite’ its lack of budget – and there is no need to question what sort of film Burnett might ‘really’ make if ‘given’ (as if by a ‘god’) a bigger budget (with that budget thus functioning as a means to make Burnett bow before the god of capital). Killer of Sheep is thus not a ‘minor’ masterpiece as many would have it understood – perhaps including ‘major’ film theorists (who speak of ‘minor cinemas’ if not of minor masterpieces, exactly). The film is, rather, already and always the greatest cinema; it is the cinema of the future; it is not even ‘cinema’ as we typically know it. It gives to cinema a future – because it also gives to humanity a future. Killer of Sheep is a major piece of work. The greatest. Enjoy it.
(And for some more of Burnett’s great work, check out his brilliant short, When It Rains, USA, 1995, here – while it is still available.)
* When white privilege is revealed to be illusory, the insult is so great to whiteness’s sense of supremacy and entitlement that it often turns psychotic/murderous in response. This only reveals the psychosis that is whiteness in the first place, as argued by Kehinde Andrews, for example. Where on earth does this psychosis come from, and how can it be so ingrained in white people not only that they should always get their own way, but also that they even believe that have a ‘way’ that is specific to them in the first place? The very idea of them even having a ‘way’ – and that they are entitled to it – demonstrates that they are psychotic in their belief that they are special and ‘chosen’, that they are the true ‘subject,’ and that the world/universe exists ‘for’ them.