A portrait of the Watts section of Los Angeles, made by one of its residents who was also a student at the American Film Institute, Killer of Sheep was barely released upon its completion in 1977. Thirty years later, on a Milestone Video DVD, the movie achieved its rightful stature as a work of uncompromising vision. Its plot is virtually nonexistent: Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders) works in a slaughterhouse; his wife (Kaycee Moore) is at home with their young son and daughter; neighbors drop by; Stan and a friend buy a junky motor for their car; the two men and their families go on a brief jaunt before the car breaks down. But the strength of Killer is in the details of a man, his family and his neighborhood. Charles Burnett, who made his film in reaction to the blaxploitation movies that depicted African-American males as dope-dealing supermen, trusts viewers to see the characters as he does — sympathetically and without judgment.
At the center of the nonaction is Stan, a quiet man who is ground down, worn out and fed up. He has lost the passion for his wife, who wonders what’s wrong; in the kitchen, she examines her face in the mirror of a pot lid. Later, in the living room, the couple slow-dances to Dinah Washington’s “This Bitter Earth.” She caresses his body, paws it, as he noncommittally keeps his hands on her thighs. When she passionately kisses his chest, he extracts himself and leaves. Standing alone, she picks up their daughter’s tiny shoes. The scene is elliptical, no loving or angry words spoken, but it’s a heartbreaker. So is this movie: a tender, searing evocation of hurts that can’t be expressed, little dreams too stubborn to die.