A vehicle crawls along a road that cuts across a brown and dusty landscape, where an African-American youngster tends an ailing horse. Three shiftless white men gather on a porch, talking of wasting time, waiting for nothing. A fourth watches over the horse, then the boy, but like his cohorts on the porch seems to lack purpose. A palpable tension fills the frame, while a creaking windmill reminds this group of lost souls that around them a farm once stood, green and full of life. They are waiting for their Godot, a black man named Ray, the boy’s father, whose responsibility to put the ailing horse out of its misery is the dramatic fulcrum of the film. The horse whinnies and neighs nervously, the only sounds of life in this desolate tableau. Ray (Larry Clark) arrives, a gun is produced and the men on the porch finally fulfil their preordained mission. They fetch firewood and kerosene as the boy covers his ears, takes his hands away momentarily and turns. A gunshot pierces the thick, humid air and we hear strains of Samuel Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915”, whose bucolic harmonies belie the sad inevitability of the act we’ve just witnessed.
At one point in Charles Burnett’s moving and shattering short film, The Horse (1972), one of the white men on the porch asks why they have to wait for a “nigger” to come kill the horse. We are left without an answer to a question that revives a modern truism: racism in America is always a breath away. Burnett knows this as well as he knows his name. Six of his films, collected in an essential two-disc set from Milestone Film & Video and too-long ignored by the very (American) public who need their caustic balm the most, capture an America ignorant of how its black citizens lived in the late 20th century, after the heyday of hope and death that marked the civil rights movement. Burnett shows us a time when white folks thought everything was fixed, integration was working and words like “nigger” weren’t spoken anymore, at least by whites who pretended to know better. A nation wanted Knoxville in the summer of 1915, and music that was soft and sweet, while its black Americans wanted so much more: a place not unto themselves but within and among. What they got was the ghetto, peering over the fence at what white folks had: a life seemingly without struggle. For blacks, the strife was never-ending.
This epic struggle is one theme Burnett beautifully renders throughout the films in this set. He also brings to light what film writer Kent Jones calls the “marrow of daily human endeavor” (1) in the lives of characters who behave with a startling allegiance to the travails blacks actually faced. In the hard-edged Several Friends (1969), women challenge their men’s masculinity and ability to hold a job (or get one). In My Brother’s Wedding (1983), a poor black man expresses jealousy, even rage, at his brother and his future wife because they have more than he will ever have. And, in his celebrated and long-lost Killer of Sheep (1977), Burnett has the courage to portray a black man by turns sensitive to the needs of his young daughter and sexually powerless, paralysed by the dulling routine of death that is his job at the local abattoir, a son who is distant and vulnerable to the attractions of life on the street and the squalor that surrounds him and his family. Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders) is the archetypal black tragic figure. Conflicted, honourable, suffocated by a life that lurches from hopelessness to flicker of hope to despair, in the end delivered by a deep but drought-infected reservoir of something like faith in a tomorrow that may well turn out to be no better than today.
The passage of time for a people forced to wait lifetimes for the slightest hint of progress becomes a struggle in itself. Time in Burnett’s films is filled with the most mundane daily tasks. In his début, Several Friends, filmed in the same inner-city locales as Killer of Sheep, the characters are repeatedly at the mercy of forces that trap them in a kind of black social and psychological diaspora. Burnett’s portrayal of characters both fighting and watching others fight, scraping together enough coins to buy a bottle of wine in the middle of a hot summer day, trying to install a washing machine and disappointing a friend who has come by for a night out (a good time ruined by the pair’s relentless focus on the “God-damn” washing machine), watching helplessly as a car’s motor slides off the back of a truck after Stan and a friend engage in a titanic struggle to hoist it there, aborting a trip to the racetrack because of a blown tire – these moments, which Burnett freights with a savage yet nurturing sense of honour, illustrate why the poor and disenfranchised gain no ground. It is as if time (or life) itself has become the enemy. The Harvard child psychiatrist Robert Coles identifies this trap of a “confining determinism” and how, when it is inevitably at odds with what he calls “an enabling historical moment” (2), can keep children from blossoming. This vicious tension applies also to the quicksand blacks have found themselves in since they were collected in Africa and dispatched to foreign lands to serve the white man. When lives are bereft of opportunity, the future does not beckon, it looms.
Despair only infrequently leavened by hope becomes for Burnett the clay he uses to sculpt his portraits of courageous yet forsaken lives. And, while despair is not unique to Americans or American filmmaking, Burnett’s searing portrayal of despair in Killer of Sheep and most of his films is born of the unique history of African-Americans, their forced emigration and the refusal of the descendants of the owners of their own forebears to welcome them once and for all. Joy is held at bay, won only after Homeric struggles played out over an entire day, that in the film are found within redeeming moments so encrusted by pain that their patina glows all the brighter. At the end of Killer of Sheep, in which even the earlier erotic caresses of his wife fail to arouse a moment of response in him, Stan finally touches his wife and smiles. In another scene, a pregnant woman, leaning on a crutch and grinning broadly, joins her friends, who fawn over her and her good news.
The year just past has been an important one for Burnett, who was born in Mississippi in 1944. After it lay in a vault for almost 30 years, Killer of Sheep was restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive, and given a wide release in the U.S. I saw it in New York last May and was stunned by the vibrant new 35 mm print, the documentary-like realism and intense poetry of Burnett’s mix of the tender and the harsh. His use of non-professional actors, a cornucopia of music that elegantly matches (or contrasts with) the scenes, from Paul Robeson’s stentorian hymns to William Grant Still’s “Afro-American Symphony” to Dinah Washington’s wrenching version of Clyde Otis’ “This Bitter Earth”; an economical yet rich amalgam of shooting that includes relaxed takes, medium shots and close-ups accented by the occasional Wellesian canted angle and extremely intimate, almost intrusive close-up. Sound for Burnett is as necessary a framing device as his camera lens. Children singing at the beginning of Killer of Sheep, glass breaking as Several Friends opens and the pastoral music of American composer Samuel Barber at the start of The Horse, all enable Burnett both to ground each film and establish within them thematic and psychological signposts to which he returns.
Although it didn’t make the Monday morning box-office roundups in the American press last year, Killer of Sheep dazzled the critics. Here is Andrew O’Hehir in Salon:
He [Burnett] has belonged to the long tradition of prophets without honor, but he may finally be getting his due. In his peculiar and lonely fashion he’s not only the most important African-American director but one of the most distinctive filmmakers this country has ever produced. (3)
Film Comment’s critics and editors named Killer of Sheep the No. 6 film of 2007. (4) Stuart Klawans in The Nation: “Killer of Sheep is one of those rare films that’s so substantial, you feel you could walk around it, test its weight, observe how firmly and forthrightly it meets the ground.” (5) In 2002, Killer of Sheep was included in The A List, 100 Essential Films by the National Society of Film Critics. (6) The film must be one of the most highly regarded American films that no one has seen.
The other films in the set have not received the recent attention that Killer of Sheep has, which makes the set invaluable to students of American filmmaking.
My Brother’s Wedding (1983) contains the anger that Burnett left out of Killer of Sheep. Pierce (Everett Silas) might be Stan’s brother. His life is free of the daily weight of family responsibilities but is freighted with resentment toward his brother, who is about to marry the daughter of a doctor. Pierce’s slaughterhouse is the dry-cleaning business run by his parents. He declares, “She just don’t seem real” after an encounter with his future sister-in-law. She asks Pierce’s brother before she is out of earshot, “Is Pierce retarded?”, and his brother replies, “No, just ghetto-ized.” How true it is, as Pierce finds himself torn in the film’s last act between attending his brother’s wedding or the funeral of his closest friend, recently released from prison. His allegiance is with the world from which his brother has managed to escape, and Pierce hates himself perhaps more than he hates his brother for it.
In When it Rains (1995), Burnett updates his chronicle of African-American life through a contemporary prism that refracts the ethos of the 1960s and 1970s. The story centres on a griot named Babu (Ayuko Babu) who makes the rounds in his neighbourhood on New Year’s day trying to rustle up money for a woman who faces eviction for falling behind in her rent. His five-minute summary of the black man’s journey carries the weight of history and the rhythm of hip street language. Burnett again achieves a documentarian’s sense of reality as Babu meets with the sympathetic and the unfeeling (and one who is ready to kill someone who owes him money to help Babu). Babu’s friend isn’t the only one with no money. Babu resolves the woman’s troubles unexpectedly. Luck sometimes befalls those without a license for it. A wildly soaring trumpet played by Babu’s saviour in the finale recalls Duke Ellington’s stratospheric music at the end of Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder (1959).
Rounding out the Milestone set is Burnett’s crisp and spontaneous Quiet As Kept (2007), a five-minute treatise of history blended with the currency of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which extended for many African-Americans displaced by the storm the themes of rootlessness and abandonment.
Burnett finds a visual language that ideally depicts the result of racism, not the racist clashes themselves. Whites figure only in The Horse. The other films in the set feature black characters and how they play the hand the white man has dealt them. Surprisingly, bitterness and anger are reserved for fellow blacks or for the characters’ own plight. Resignation is the common motif among Burnett’s characters, including the children, who are not spared the ravages of life in the inner city. Their innate resilience leaves them the only characters free of the scar tissue that has distorted their parents’ and other adults’ sense of themselves. In Killer of Sheep, war games, dolls, singing and sitting on daddy’s lap stave off for another day the children’s inevitable slide into hopelessness. In My Brother’s Wedding, a young girl on the threshold of maturity complains of an ache in her belly as she flirts with Pierce, a 30-year-old man. And, in The Horse, Ray’s son extends his last moments with his horse in an intimately shot scene: the two walk slowly away from the camera, approaching a spinning windmill that suggests a time when the farm was fertile and bustling.
Burnett also invests the children in his films with rare moments of humour, as when Stan’s daughter in Killer of Sheep hides behind a dog mask, which hardly keeps her from sucking her thumb. Film writer and author Armond White writes of the “small and humorous aspects of Killer of Sheep”:
Such knowledge, rarely solicited by American films, derives from a source of experience and art that puts most other – generally escapist – cinema to shame. And it also shames a viewer to recognize these characters, the world they inhabit, the behavior they reflect back onto the audience. What else can explain Burnett’s remarkable portrait never finding favor with either the Blaxploitation audience, the 1980s buppie/independent audience or the 1990s hip-hop movie audience? Killer of Sheep’s American truth allows no franchise of sensational blandishments. (7)
The release of this indispensable set of films will do more than introduce film lovers to Burnett’s work or those who know Burnett’s landmark film Killer of Sheep (produced while Burnett was a film student at UCLA for about $10,000) to some of his other work. It will ensure that an important cinematic voice continues to reverberate for audiences of all colours, audiences who may otherwise be shielded from a vision that makes its claim on us with rare honesty, brutality and tenderness.
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- Kent Jones, Physical Evidence: Selected Film Criticism (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 2007), p. 58.
- Robert Coles, “Controversy: Replies to Bettelheim’s ‘Schooling Is Not Enough’”, The New York Review of Books, 22 October 1964, Vol. 3, No. 5.
- Andrew O’Hehir, “Killer of Sheep”, Salon.com, 30 March 2007.
- “Final Cut 2007”, Film Comment, January/February 2008, Vol. 44, No. 1, p. 36.
- Stuart Klawans, “That’s the Way of the World”, The Nation, 9 April 2007.
- The A List: The National Society of Film Critics’ 100 Essential Films (Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo Press, 2002).
- Armond White, “Killer of Sheep”, in The A List: The National Society of Film Critics’ 100 Essential Films, p. 162.