Killer of Sheep (1977):

Consciously an anti-Superfly, Charles Burnett's life-in-the-ghetto mood piece, expanded from his UCLA thesis, is often compared to the unobtrusive obvervationalism of Italian neo-realism, misleadingly -- verismo it is, but the heightened one of Visconti's Rocco and His Brothers rather than the cunning faux-documentary one of De Sica. It opens on abstract close-up, a familial row, black faces against black backgrounds, shouting over brotherly protection -- a slap to the face, then Paul Robeson rumbling on the soundtrack. Already, the alleged "artlessness" glistens with the most lyrical of artifices, a frisson between lush and stark, the visual-emotional grandeur of the mundane. The opener situates Burnett's canvas of black experience within family (thus, within society), but the scolded boy grows into the abattoir worker of the title (Henry Gayle Saunders), numbed by life yet ennobled by the pride of his struggle. This Watts is dusty and lifeworn, tenements housing both frustrated adulthood and carefree childhood; the kids arrange mock-battles in construction sites and hurl stones at the freight trains slogging through, while a pair of hoods evoke primal survival ("An animal has its teeth, and a man has his fist.") to try to lure Saunders into shady business. Wife Kaycee Moore keeps him from straying onto temptation, only to be turned down when languid shimmering to Dinah Washington's "This Bitter Earth" brings the promise of sex; bearing with her husband's stress, she checks her reflection on the bulge of a pot's lid. Everyone has their reasons, no less so than in Renoir, and Burnett's humanism accumulates casually indelible grace notes: a child in floppy dog mask; a used motor torturously loaded onto a truck, then crashed into the asphalt; suspicion and surreptitious desire in cashing a check at the grocery store; a girl's face as her freshly washed sheets are pelted with dirt. Bleakness pervades, yet Burnett locates hope in the struggle, the mimed arc of a future pregnant belly segueing into sheep led into the slaughterhouse -- a Franju quotation, yet scored to Washington's "Unforgettable." With Charles Bracy, Angela Burnett, Eugene Cherry, and Jack Drummond. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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