Leadbelly Killer of Sheep

Get Paid To Write Online

Get Paid to Write at Home

Get Instant Access

Films made by and for the African American community have a long history. In the silent film period, Oscar Micheaux and others were already making feature films with black casts for black audiences. In the 1930s, with the advent of sound films, this approach to film was formularized as ''race movies,'' low-budget films for the African American audience which often repeated the most popular white genres: mystery, Western, and so on. Black people appeared in Hollywood films only in stereotyped roles (e.g., the maid played by Hattie McDaniel in Gone With the Wind). In the 1950s and 1960s, this began to change as Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte became black Hollywood stars. However, Poitier was heavily criticized within the black community for his nonaggressive, nonsexual persona.1

The presentation of African Americans in Hollywood film changed dramatically in the years around 1970. In response to the social changes of the time, a series of films starred proud, aggressive African American heroes. Many of these were fairly standard action films featuring black athletes such as Jim Brown, O.J. Simpson, and Fred Williamson. However, more original views of fiercely independent black heroes came from Sweet Sweetbacks Badasssss Song (Melvin Van Peebles, 1969), Shaft (Gordon Parks, 1971), and Superfly (Gordon Parks Jr., 1972). These three films used slang, music, fashion, and attitude to define current trends and concerns within the African American community. Sweetback, an independently produced film, actually presents violent resistance to the white-dominated status quo. Shaft and Superfly, both produced within the Hollywood system, show independent characters (one a detective, one a drug pusher) functioning within current social reality. All three films were commercially successful, indicating the black audience's hunger for a new self-image.

The success of the new black action film was soon codified into a genre, popularly called ''blaxploitation.'' The formula was simple: lots of action, lots of sex, and a black hero (or heroine) who is, in Thomas Doherty's words, ''invariably dangerous and individualistic.''2 The films were made cheaply and often financed by white producers. The label blaxploitation (black + exploitation) suggests that a degree of cynicism was involved. Nevertheless, this genre was surprisingly popular in the early 1970s. According to Ed Guerrero, approximately sixty blaxploitation films were made.3 Darius James, in the quirky interview book That's Blaxploitation, presents at length the oral history of blaxploitation (as delivered by filmmakers of the era).4

The history of African American film in the 1970s can be considered a two-part process: first, the rise and fall of the blaxploitation genre; second, the elaboration of alternatives to blaxploitation. The black action hits of the early 1970s showed that there was an African American audience eager to see more positive treatment of the black community on film. The success of blaxploitation provided opportunities for a whole generation of African American actors, directors, and writers. But the repetition of blaxploitation ultimately proved unsatisfactory to both the creative talent and the audience. Therefore, by the mid-1970s the African American film was moving in other directions, including comedy, big-budget musical, and social drama. So much had changed so rapidly that critic James Monaco speaks of ''the Black revolution in film.''5 This chapter cannot provide a full history of the African American film of the 1970s, but it will suggest the line of development by discussing two of the founding films of blaxploitation, Shaft and Superfly, plus three films which depart from blaxploitation.

Shaft (1971) is a reworking of the hard-boiled detective story popularized

Shaft mgm.

Private detective John Shaft (Richard Roundtree) meets with the New York City Police Department. Courtesy of Museum of Modern Art /Film Stills Archive.

Shaft mgm.

Private detective John Shaft (Richard Roundtree) meets with the New York City Police Department. Courtesy of Museum of Modern Art /Film Stills Archive.

by novelists Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and brought to the screen in such classic films as The Maltese Falcon (1941), Murder My Sweet (1944), and The Big Sleep (1946). Private detective John Shaft (Richard Roundtree) is hired by Bumpy Jonas (Moses Gunn), head of the Harlem rackets, to find Bumpy's kidnapped daughter Marcie. Bumpy suggests that radical leader Ben Buford (Christopher St. John), head of the Lumumbas, may be involved. Police lieutenant Vic Anderozzi (Charles Cioffi) also wants Shaft to look into a possible ''war'' in Harlem. After some violent misadventures, Shaft discovers that the Mafia has kidnapped Marcie in a dispute over the Harlem drug trade. Shaft, Buford, and Buford's men attack the Mafia in a Greenwich Village hotel. Marcie is freed, and Shaft calls Vic to say that the case has busted wide open—Vic should now close it himself.

What is immediately striking about Shaft is the look and sound of the film. Gordon Parks was, in 1971, a world-renowned still photographer. He

Shaft mgm.

John Shaft (Richard Roundtree) on the streets of Manhattan. Courtesy of Museum of Modern Art /Film Stills Archive.

Shaft mgm.

John Shaft (Richard Roundtree) on the streets of Manhattan. Courtesy of Museum of Modern Art /Film Stills Archive.

had been, for example, a top photojournalist at Life magazine. Shaft does a good job of showing the variety and vitality of New York in winter: the busy streets of midtown, the stoops and alleys of Harlem, a hip Greenwich Village coffeehouse. Parks's hero, played by Richard Roundtree, looks like a confident, independent man with his own sense of style. He's tall, athletic, well dressed in leather coat, sport jacket, and turtleneck. He acts like the king of New York, striding through a variety of neighborhoods with equal authority. When Roundtree is moving and Isaac Hayes's score is playing, Shaft is an exceptional movie. Roundtree is good in dialogue scenes involving jive talking or conflict, but less impressive in moments of exposition.

Isaac Hayes won a well-deserved Academy Award for his music for Shaft. The opening theme over the credits, percussive and bluesy with a stuttering electric guitar, suggests that this will not be just another Hollywood movie. Eventually, the theme adds a vocal track, with male and female voices pro viding background on John Shaft. At one point the vocal becomes call and response and we hear:

That Shaft is a mean mother .. . Watch your mouth! Talking about Shaft.

This exchange suggests first, a sense of fun, and second, that the film will push the limits of polite discourse, but not too far.6 Isaac Hayes also provides, early in the film, a wonderful song introducing the community of Harlem. After this, the music becomes less obtrusive, underlining the action scenes but not becoming an important, contrapuntal line. However, the music of the opening third of the film suggests how crucial music can be in defining a black attitude and milieu.

Shaft is an adaptation of a novel by Ernest Tidyman, with a script by Tidyman and John D. F. Black. Tidyman, a white man, had a background as a newspaper reporter and a writer of action scripts (including The French Connection). His novel and script for Shaft raise the issue of black revolution, via Ben Buford and the Lumumbas, but only to scare and titillate the audience. A black militant "army" exists in Shaft (though Buford's men are less skilled at fighting than Shaft), but the threat of race war is a false lead. The conflict feared by Lieutenant Anderozzi turns out to be a conflict between criminal gangs. Providing the Mafia as Shaft's main antagonists means that the black audience can cheer for black over white without making an emotional commitment to Buford's political group. It also means that a white audience can enjoy Shaft without being threatened by armed revolt. Gordon Parks described Shaft as an entertainment, ''a Saturday night fun picture which people go to see because they want to see the black guy

winning. 7

A further social/political message lies in the behavior of the main character, in Shaft as role model. John Shaft is a proud black man. He is not a separatist like Buford; he functions in both the black and white communities. Bumpy's bodyguard actually calls him ''Snow White,'' but Shaft does remain in touch with his roots. At one point he says: ''I got two problems, baby, I was born black and I was born poor.'' Shaft is comfortable and at home on the streets of Harlem and in a bar in Greenwich Village. An early shot even shows him striding through a host of taxis in Midtown, against the light—no mean feat. Shaft is also aggressively sexual. He has a middle-class black girlfriend, who lives with her child in a nice apartment. This arrangement does not keep him from spending the night with a pretty white woman (when asked if he's interested, Shaft replies, ''I'm alive.''). In its sexual attitudes, Shaft is a somewhat more realistic version of a James Bond film, with women presented mainly as bed partners. This macho attitude became a central element of blaxploitation.

Superfly, directed by Gordon Parks Jr., is clearly derivative of Shaft. Superfly begins with shots of the New York streets accompanied by a percussive rhythm and blues tune, this time by Curtis Mayfield. The main character, Priest (Ron O'Neal), has sex with both a black woman and a white woman. Black militants appear in Superfly, as in Shaft, but in both films they are seen as more or less irrelevant to the everyday problems of the hero. Most importantly, Priest, like John Shaft, is an aggressive, confident black man who achieves considerable autonomy in the dangerous world of New York City.

The major difference between Superfly and Shaft lies in the protagonist's profession. Shaft is a private detective, a man licensed by society to carry a gun, to investigate crime, even to commit violent acts on occasion (or so the conventions of detective fiction would suggest). The detective character combines a great deal of individual freedom with at least some degree of social responsibility. Priest, on the other hand, is a cocaine dealer and a social outlaw. Priest wears the elaborate, expensive costumes of the dealer or the pimp—long fur coat, broad-brimmed hat, double breasted suit. His hair is very long at the sides, and he has a huge moustache.8 Priest is a user as well as a pusher, and in the most flamboyant touch of all he typically snorts cocaine from a crucifix/coke spoon he wears around his neck.

The less than exceptional plot of Superfly involves Priest's attempt to earn a quick half-million dollars and ''get out of the life.'' He becomes a middleman for a group of ''dirty'' policemen, all of them white, and finds that his new bosses won't let him quit. In a final confrontation, Priest meets the big boss, deputy police commissioner Riordan. Riordan threatens Priest's life, but Priest responds that he has a murder contract out on Rior-dan and his family. If Priest dies, so do they. Having vanquished whitey, Priest walks off into the sunset.

Unlike Easy Rider, which glossed over the heroes' drug dealing to stress their liberty, Superfly presents the life of the drug dealer in meticulous detail. Curtis Mayfield's fine song ''Pusher Man,'' heard on several occasions, suggests the excitement of cocaine but also the tragedy of addiction (''I've gotta Jones / Runnin' through my bones''). At one point, Gordon Parks Jr. presents a long, multiscreen montage of still images on the preparation, distribution, and consumption of cocaine. The montage shows, among other things, that many kinds of people, white as well as black, use cocaine. Parks Jr.'s focus on cocaine allows for realistic observation of a distinctive subculture, but it runs the risk of glorifying the drug and the dealers. If Priest is a hero (and he clearly is), then in the terms of the film cocaine must be all right.

Superfly,s only strategy for eluding an endorsement of cocaine is to blame everything on the white man. Early in the film, Priest's partner Eddie (Carl Lee) says about dealing: ''I know it's a rotten game. It's the only one the Man left us to play.'' The Man here is the white power structure, the same power structure which, as we eventually find out, controls large-scale cocaine dealing in Harlem. So, the only way to be free is to be a dealer, but a big dealer is led back inexorably to the Man. The crooked cops kill two of Priest's associates in the film, including his mentor Scatter (Julius Harris), but Priest himself takes great glee in outwitting them. As in Shaft, the point of Superfly is ''to see the black guy winning.'' But the implicit question posed by Gordon Parks Jr.'s film is whether the audience can accept a hero from the drug trade.

A very different picture of the African American community is provided by Claudine (1974). Claudine (Diahann Carroll) is a thirty-six-year-old twice-divorced mother of six, who lives with her children in a New York City apartment. She is on welfare and she has a job as housecleaner for a wealthy couple in the suburbs. In other words, Claudine is a welfare cheat. She is also quietly heroic as she keeps her family together, confronts a number of crises, and embarks on a relationship with a man.

Claudine is a refreshing movie made from ordinary lives, a mixture of neorealism and romantic/family comedy. All the main characters are black, except for the nosy social worker. We are far from blaxploitation here; Claudine includes no guns and no killing. It could be a movie made for television, except for two things. First, the film is sexually frank beyond the limits of

Claudine twentieth century-fox.

Diahann Carroll as Claudine, a twice-divorced woman on welfare. Courtesy of Museum of Modern Art/Film Stills Archive.

Claudine twentieth century-fox.

Diahann Carroll as Claudine, a twice-divorced woman on welfare. Courtesy of Museum of Modern Art/Film Stills Archive.

1970s television, though not beyond the PG rating. Second, the film presents a moral and ideological position rarely seen on American television.

The impetus for the story involves Claudine accepting a dinner invitation from Roop (James Earl Jones), a garbage collector of about her age. Despite an inauspicious first evening and resistance from her children, they are soon a couple. Claudine is pushed and pulled between the problems of her family and the relationship with Roop. Roop is caught between a developing love for Claudine and the child support he must pay for his own children. Both members of the couple have little freedom of action because of past mistakes. Also, Claudine's relationship with a man brings with it further hazards from the Welfare Department. If Roop gives her anything, it's supposed to be deducted from her welfare stipend. If she marries, she loses her welfare money, though the children will continue to receive their stipends. Strange as this may seem, the system is set up to encourage single female heads of household.

Claudine and Roop survive these conditions with surprising grace, though Roop does go through an episode of drunkenness and despair. In a reversal of cliche;, the children are more bitter than the adults about life in the inner city. Francis (Eric Jones), one of Claudine's little boys, tells Roop his ambition is to be invisible when he grows up; Francis often writes or draws instead of speaking. Charles (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs), Claudine's oldest boy, joins a militant Black Power group. Unfortunately, this group seems to be both dangerous to its members and ineffective. He also has a vasectomy at age eighteen, so he will not bring more children into the world. Charlene (Tamu), the oldest girl, becomes pregnant at sixteen, thus repeating the cycle of poverty and dependence. She talks about living with her boyfriend and finding a job, but she knows her prospects are dim. When she discovers the pregnancy, Claudine beats Charlene with a hairbrush, then hugs her fiercely.

As opposed to current ideas about welfare and the perpetuation of poverty, this film sees welfare as essential to maintaining dignity and family stability. Claudine has had some bad breaks in life; welfare is her family's safety net. The fathers of her kids are presumably not available or not able to pay child support, and welfare is the support of last resort. Claudine's struggle to raise a family with welfare and the illegal housekeeping job requires intelligence, determination, devotion, and stamina. This welfare mother is a role model.

The production history of the film adds an interesting twist to the view of welfare as a necessary and positive part of the black community. Claudine was the first film produced by Third World Cinema Corporation, a New York-based company founded by actor-director Ossie Davis in collaboration with a number of other show-business figures: Rita Moreno, James Earl Jones, Brock Peters, Diana Sands, Godfrey Cambridge, Piri Thomas, John O. Killens, and Hannah Weinstein.9 Third World Cinema had two objectives:

(1) to train blacks and other minorities for work in the film industry, and

(2) to make feature films from a minority perspective. Much of the funding for the organization came from federal grants, including $200,000 from the U.S. Manpower Career and Development Administration, and $400,000

from the Model Cities program.10 This is a remarkable way to launch a film company, though the goal of training minorities for high-paying crew positions is laudable. Despite Third World Cinema's partial dependence on the federal government (I do not know whether any production funds for Claudine came from a government source), the film is highly critical of the welfare system. The film suggests that welfare is a right and that federal caseworkers should not be monitoring their welfare clients.

Claudine certainly gets beyond the genre limitations of blaxploitation set by Shaft and Superfly. It is a well-told story about people and emotions which happens to be set in the black ghetto. The two stars are wonderful American actors who happen to be black. Diahann Carroll as Claudine speaks out to her children and to Roop with a moral force. She refuses to apologize for having six children, and she objects to the stereotype of welfare mother as morally lax. James Earl Jones as Roop is handsome and emotionally powerful; it is good to see him play a role outside of genre stereotypes. Roop has four children of his own. He never sees them, but his wages are garnisheed for their support. Though Roop is generally a happy and outgoing man, even he is troubled by the prospect of finding a way to support his children, plus Claudine's family.

Claudines strength is also its weakness. The two stars seem to be ''larger than life,'' too beautiful and perfect for their modest social positions. Diahann Carroll, who established a national reputation as star of the TV sitcom ''Julia'' (1968-1971), has the figure and posture of a fashion model. James Earl Jones, already in 1974 a stage, film, and TV star, has the presence and emotional range of a Shakespearian actor. We often see powerful actors in modest social roles in the theater, and to some extent in Hollywood films. But in a film of neorealist ambitions, this kind of ''larger than life'' acting can be a problem. Imagine Cary Grant playing the lead role in The Bicycle Thief, a casting choice which director Vittorio de Sica refused. With a Hollywood star, The Bicycle Thief would move closer to melodrama and farther from a socially rooted ''slice of life.'' Something similar happens in Claudine. With Diahann Carroll and James Earl Jones, the film becomes more accessible to an audience but less successful in conveying the mood and texture of the community. It threatens at times to become a conventional romantic comedy.

Still, writer-director John Berry, a veteran of the Hollywood blacklist who happens to be white, has done a creditable job of portraying the working/welfaring poor in an African American community. Though not ignoring topical references (e.g., the Black Power group), he focuses on social class rather than race in defining Claudine and her circle. This cuts through many stereotypes and provides a fresh look at families who depend on welfare. The film suggests that economic dependence is not inevitably linked to moral decline. Instead, people on welfare are complex human beings and valuable citizens.

Leadbelly (1976), directed by Gordon Parks Sr., is an interesting response to the blaxploitation film and to white packaging of black culture. It tells the story of Huddie Ledbetter, nicknamed "Leadbelly," a historical figure who was a crucial part of the popularization of the Blues music of the rural South. The film begins in Angola State Prison in Louisiana in the 1930s, where John Lomax and his son Alex, representing the Library of Congress, have come to record the convict Ledbetter. These recordings sparked a great deal of interest in Leadbelly, the Blues, and folk music generally. According to Michael Paris, most of the interest came from the white middle class, and John Lomax presented Leadbelly's music as "folkloric" to fit the needs of this cultured audience.11 Gordon Parks's film recognizes the importance of Leadbelly's "discovery" but also critiques the Lomaxes' motivations and reclaims Leadbelly as an exemplary figure for the black community.

The bulk of the film occurs as a flashback from the Lomax-Leadbelly recording session. We see Huddie Ledbetter as a hot-tempered young musician fleeing his home after a drunken fight. He moves first to Shreveport, where he plays in a black whorehouse; then he travels to Texas, where he meets the legendary Blues musician Blind Lemon Jefferson. Ledbetter is repeatedly in trouble with the law. At one point he starts a brawl at a white dance because his employer (a racist drunk) insists that he play several hours extra for no pay. He is in and out of jail and eventually finds himself working on a prison chain gang. He is pardoned by Texas governor Roy Neff because of his musical talent. Returning home to Louisiana, he defends himself against some white toughs and immediately lands back in prison, where the Lomaxes find him.

Leadbelly asks what John Lomax will do with his music and objects to Lomax's notion of collecting songs "like they's butterflies.'' Leadbelly announces that he will sing his own songs in Washington, Chicago, Memphis, and New York. Six months later, when he is released from prison, Leadbelly proclaims, ''They ain't broke my body, they ain't broke my mind, they ain't broke my spirit.'' An end title confirms that after his release, Leadbelly ''sang his way across America, all the way to Carnegie Hall.''

As presented by Gordon Parks, Huddie Ledbetter is far from a saint. He is headstrong, quick to pull a knife or gun, not a planner or a thinker. He is more faithful to his music than to the women in his life, though he does have a long-term relationship with Martha, a woman he meets in the cotton fields of Texas. Yet Huddie does have one admirable quality: he refuses to be objectified and mistreated by the white men who rule the segregated South. Even in prison, he insists on the dignity of fighting back when he is beaten and abused. Huddie has to learn by bitter experience that physical violence is not the only way of fighting; in the words of an inmate friend, ''when they wants to kill you, just living is winning.''

Huddie's newfound patience is expressed in the almost surreal scene where he is called to play before Governor Neff. The scene begins with a young white boy, impeccably dressed in a white suit, walking behind a black chain gang at work. The camera pulls back and we see that a formal garden party, with everyone in white, has come to the prison grounds to hear Lead-belly play. Leadbelly becomes a grateful, shuffling Negro in this scene, and he sings a song asking Governor Neff for a pardon. The governor, laughing and lording it over the scene, promises that pardoning Leadbelly will be the last thing he does in office. Some years later, Leadbelly is released, because Governor Neff kept his word. This scene is both an expression of white privilege and an indication of the large role chance plays in individual lives.

The retelling of Ledbetter's life makes him not a revolutionary, not a political figure of any kind, but still an embodiment of black resistance. He fights back, he perseveres, and ultimately he wins his freedom. Unlike John Shaft, whose heroism is mainly a matter of style, Ledbetter's struggle involves key historical issues. Shaft goes out to rescue Marcie Jonas for a variety of reasons (professionalism, money, perhaps even fun), but no social, political, or ethical principle is invoked. In general, blaxploitation is about action, not ideas. Leadbelly has its share of sex and violence, but it is also about black-white relations, the suppression of black men by the prison system, destructive behavior within the black community, the economics and culture of the black South, the role of music in black culture. In other words, Gordon Parks has moved from a poetics of style to more fundamental matters.

As a musical film, Leadbelly takes Huddie Ledbetter out of the historicist framework of "collector" John Lomax and restores his music to the black community. Most of the music in the film is diegetic and attached to a specific cultural setting. We hear, for example, the music of the whorehouses and bars on Fannin Street in Shreveport; music of black and also white dances; music of the cotton fields; music of the chain gang. At one point we see a train and hear Ledbetter singing ''Rock Island Line''; this appears to be nondiegetic music, but then the film cuts to Ledbetter playing in a black passenger car to an appreciative audience. Leadbelly also recapitulates the old adage that the emotion of the Blues can come only from lived experience. In Shreveport, Leadbelly is a young, naive guitar virtuoso. His employer and lover Miss Eula (Madge Sinclair) tells him, ''You got to feel the Blues.'' After a life of violent incidents and prison terms, this is not a problem; Leadbelly has learned to feel the Blues.

Though Leadbelly was an artistic advance over Shaft, it did not repeat the commercial success of the earlier film. According to Gordon Parks himself, Leadbelly suffered from a change of administrations at Paramount. When Barry Diller took over, he had no interest in supporting and promoting Leadbelly.12 James Monaco reports that the film ''was dumped with an inefficient ad campaign and quick, perfunctory bookings.''13 Parks responded by leaving Hollywood and recommitting his attention to photography and other interests.

Killer of Sheep (1977) is a low-budget, black-and-white film written and directed by Charles Burnett that demonstrates the possibility of making African American films differently—out of the Hollywood mainstream—in the 1970s. The film presents the story of Stan, a slaughterhouse worker (thus ''killer of sheep''), and his family in a poor, black neighborhood of Los Angeles. Stan is beaten down by work, poverty, and the chaotic lives of those around him, yet he manages to hold a job and maintain strong relationships with his wife and daughter. His son, perhaps twelve years old, seems to be wandering off into the purposeless, violent life of the ghetto, but this may be only a temporary stage. At the end of the film, for all his troubles, Stan can actually smile.

Ntongela Masilela describes Charles Burnett as a member of the first wave of the ''Los Angeles School'' of African American and African independent filmmakers.14 Other members of this group, who studied at UCLA in the 1970s, are Haile Gerima, Ben Caldwell, Larry Clark, Jamaa Fanaka, Billy Mayberry, and the critic/historian Teshome Gabriel. The importance of the university setting was twofold: (1) it provided an opportunity for screening, discussion, and practice of non-Hollywood approaches to narrative film; and (2) the members of the group inspired each other and helped each other to make feature films. Given the generally low percentage of film students who become successful filmmakers, it is remarkable that this group produced two major talents (Burnett and Gerima), in addition to others who made promising films in both commercial and noncommercial styles.

Charles Burnett acknowledges the influence of the British documentary school of the 1930s and the Italian neorealist movement on his films. He studied at UCLA with Basil Wright, perhaps the most visually eloquent of the Grierson group of documentarists. Burnett describes Wright's approach to teaching documentary as follows: ''In the films he discussed, every shot contained a human element or touch. The subjects in front of the camera were treated like people, not just props and objects and things to be manipu-lated.''15 Killer of Sheep does have strong documentary qualities. It was shot on location, with hand-held camera and inexperienced actors. The photography shows, without editorializing, the grim surroundings and the sometimes cruel, sometimes compassionate interactions between people in the neighborhood.

Since Killer of Sheep is a scripted, fiction film using documentary techniques, a strong link can be made to Italian neorealism. Killer of Sheep is a portrait of a poor family in desperate trouble, and like Claudine, it bears some resemblance to Vittorio de Sica's The Bicycle Thief. However, in The Bicycle Thief the trouble facing the poor family is specific: the hero needs a bicycle to keep a job, and the bicycle is stolen. Aside from this problem, both the family and the surrounding cultural milieu are generally supportive. In Killer ofSheep, the trouble is diffuse: crime is endemic, violence is endemic, jobs are low-paying and spirit-sapping, people in the neighborhood have stopped trying to build a life.

What distinguishes Killer of Sheep from neorealism, and previous African American films, is a unique, fragmented audiovisual style. Story is minimized in favor of observation, and the spectator is left to make his or her own inferences and conclusions. Many scenes have little or no dialogue but contain images verging on the symbolic. We see the harsh working conditions at the slaughterhouse, Stan's son at violent play, mother and daughter putting on makeup, daughter playing with a white doll, and so on. Continuity is often dispensed with, and the sense of a totalized situation comes via juxtaposition and accretion. The dialogue sequences present some of the temptations of the black ghetto—two men proposing that Stan join them in committing a crime, a visit to a "friend" who explains that he just doesn't care if someone kicks his injured nephew. Stan suffers from the surrounding conditions; he has problems with both insomnia and impotence. Yet he stubbornly persists, with the effort and the patience of Sisyphus, in building a life.16 In the film's system, a simple scene of dancing with one's wife can become life affirming.

Killer of Sheep might be described as a non-Hollywood film at the boundary of narrative, documentary, and experimental. It requires that the spectator actively work at creating a meaning for the film. In this particular instance, at least, the formal experimentation leads to a new content, because Killer of Sheep presents the ebb and flow of ghetto life in a way unavailable to more conventional narrative. Every scene has a certain amount of autonomy, and yet it links to other scenes and to a sense of the whole. The effect is somewhat akin to Jim Jarmusch's isolated tableaux in Stranger than Paradise (1984), but Killer of Sheep avoids the blackouts punctuating Jarmusch's film. Charles Burnett manages to balance fragmentation and connection in a precarious yet stimulating way.

Despite its ultra-low budget, Killer of Sheep is sometimes described as a masterpiece—and I would concur with this assessment.17 Unfortunately, it is probably too experimental for a mainstream movie audience. Making films differently and finding an audience is a very knotty problem. Burnett and his UCLA contemporary Haile Gerima succeeded in reaching broader audiences only in the 1990s: Burnett with To Sleep with Anger (1990), and Gerima with Sankofa (1993).

Was this article helpful?

0 0
Film Making

Film Making

If you have ever wanted the secrets to making your own film, here it is: Indy Film Insider Tips And Basics To Film Making. Have you ever wanted to make your own film? Is there a story you want to tell? You might even think that this is impossible. Studios make films, not the little guy. This is probably what you tell yourself. Do you watch films with more than a casual eye? You probably want to know how they were able to get perfect lighting in your favorite scene, or how to write a professional screenplay.

Get My Free Ebook

Post a comment