Dir. Charles Burnett. U.S.A. 1979.

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“The house I live in, the goodness everywhere, a land of wealth and beauty with enough for all to share,” – from the song “The House I Live In” by Earl Robinson.

On August 11, 1965 at the corner of Imperial Blvd. and Avalon in South-Central Los Angeles, as a young social worker in the area, I watched while police pulled over a young black man suspected of drunk driving. The arrest of Marquette Frye and that of his mother who came to protest led to what became known as the Watts Riots, an unfocused rebellion that lasted six days and resulted in 34 deaths, hundreds of injuries, and 40 million dollars worth of property damage and required 10,000 National Guard troops. High unemployment, lack of adequate medical care, poor public transportation, police discrimination, and poor quality schools were cited as the root causes of the uprising in a report by the McCone Commission.

Though the 1996 Welfare reform led to more work training programs, recommendations in the report for addressing these problems were never acted on. A resident of Watts for 46 years says that things haven't changed much at all. "Everybody is tense — no jobs, zero tolerance in the housing projects... people scared of the police," she says. This pall of subsistence survival and emotional malaise hangs over Charles Burnett’s 1979 film Killer of Sheep. As Burnett’s Masters Thesis project at UCLA, it was shot in black and white on weekends over the course of a year on a budget of less than $10,000.

Though the film never received distribution (because of soundtrack copyright issues), it won the Critics' Award at the Berlin Festival in 1981, and in 1990 it was placed on the Library of Congress' National Film Registry. Thirty years after its completion, it was restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive and received a national release. Backed by an outstanding soundtrack of music by Etta James, Dinah Washington, Gershwin, Sergei Rachmaninov, Paul Robeson, and Earth, Wind & Fire, the film’s main focus is on Stan (Henry Gale Sanders), a slaughterhouse worker who is struggling to support his family in Watts.

The film does not have a cohesive narrative but is more of a series of vignettes. The film begins with a boy being berated by his father for not defending his brother in a neighborhood fight. “You are not a child anymore,” he yells at the boy, “You soon will be a goddamn man. Start learning what life is about now, son.” To support her husband, the boy’s mother (Kaycee Moore) slaps him across the face. The nature of Stan’s job is evident with the sight of sheep being herded to their death and hanging on a conveyor belt, an image juxtaposed with a shot of boys standing on their heads in front of Stan’s house. At home, Stan goes through the motions of living. He fixes the sink, installs new linoleum, and works on various projects.

Exhausted at the end of the day, he has little energy to play with the kids. Without toys, the children improvise. A girl wears an ugly Halloween rubber mask, children play in empty lots filled with garbage. As Paul Robeson sings The House I Live In” with unmistakable irony, a group of children throw rocks at each other until one small boy gets hurt and they move to nearby railroad tracks and throw more rocks, this time at a passing train. As passive observers, children watch while some older boys walk out of a neighbor’s house with a stolen TV set. In a beautifully choreographed scene, children acrobatically leap over rooftops.

One vignette follows another: Stan holds a cup against his face and compares the feeling to touching his wife’s forehead just after they have made love; he and his wife are silhouetted against a window dancing to Dinah Washington’s “The Bitter Earth;” Stan invests $15 in a used motor to get his car running only to have it fall off the back of the truck. In a scene that sums up all their frustration, the family finally goes on an outing together until their trip is thwarted by a flat tire and no spare.

Killer of Sheep is a student film and is ragged around the edges. At times, the dialogue can be barely heard or understood, yet, though they are not saints by any stretch of the imagination, the characters’ sense of dignity is evident. In spite of the fact that they are without opportunities, the people in the film are not victims. They are a community whose lives are rooted in an acceptance of their common vulnerability. “I’m working myself into my own hell,” Stan says to a friend. “I close my eyes, can’t get no sleep at night, no peace of mind,” yet he goes on. As the old spiritual “Going Home” puts it, “There's no break, there's no end, just a living on; wide-awake, with a smile, going on and on.”


Howard Schumann

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