Every so often a film is made that makes a major impact on the culture of cinema. Charles Burnett with his film Killer of Sheep (2007) made that impact. The film was created by Burnett as his masters thesis from the UCLA film school in 1977, but was not formally released until 2007 (Burnett, Milestone Films). Even though it wasn’t released for almost thirty years, the film received international praise. Killer of Sheep brought to life a new image of African American cinema and created a powerful impression of life in the black ghetto. Burnett created a realistic image of African American blue-collar life in a non-traditional structure that changed African American cinema.
Burnett set Killer of Sheep in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, which is historically important to African American history because of the 1965 Watts riots. On August 11th, 1965, the Watts riots broke out in a response to arrest of Marquette Fry by the LAPD (Civil Rights Digital Library). Poor living conditions, high unemployment and harsh racial treatment were occurring in outraged the community of Watts. Frye’s arrest was the catalyst to many days of violence. There was an enormous amount of media coverage of the riots, giving the American population a glimpse into horrifying scenes that took place (Massood). It took a week for peace to be restored to the area, but even after the riots the social and economic conditions did not improve. Watts remained suppressed, but Americans now had a bruised image of the area. Burnett created his film in Watts setting a distressed and fatigued tone for everything that takes place. The history of the area and the civil injustice that sparked the violence can be seen in every environment. The audience is given a glimpse of life in the ghetto and how hard it is to rise above it.
Burnett’s film style also played into the impression of life in the black ghetto. The film was shot on a very low budget of about Ten Thousand dollars (Burnett, Milestone Films). Everything was shot hands-on with life in Watts. This helped to contribute the neo-realism style of the film. The film mostly deals with the life of Stan (Henry G. Sanders), a kind-hearted slaughterhouse worker who struggles to get anywhere in life. The film follows Stan as he goes through day-to-day life. There is no connection major story arch to scenes in the film. It is events as Stan tries to get ahead in life, but he never seems to get anywhere. This idea is solidified by the additional shots of children playing that find their place throughout the film. Killer of Sheep starts with a group of children playing war with dirt clots and hiding behind plywood scraps. These breaks to shots of children add to realism and complete image of poor African American life. The struggle isn’t just the adults, but also the children who make the best of their living situations. Burnett was able to capture African American life in a very real way that had not yet been seen in cinema.