Slaughterhouse blues: Charles Burnett on Killer of Sheep

In our July 2002 issue, Burnett recalled his discouraging school years, his experience at an anarchic UCLA, and the eventual release of his thesis film, Killer of Sheep, speaking to fellow UCLA alumnus and director Alex Cox.

8 April 2022

By Armond White, Alex Cox

Killer of Sheep (1978)
Sight and Sound
This interview first appeared in the July 2002 issue of Sight and Sound

Killer of Sheep, the least-known great modern movie from the United States, was made in the conscious pursuit of art and truth. Filmed outside the mainstream industry (in Hollywood’s backyard, the Watts section of Los Angeles), it was Charles Burnett’s 1977 UCLA master’s thesis. Yet Killer of Sheep rightly belongs within the fabled 1970s American renaissance, containing as much documentation of the period’s thought and language as Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces, John Cassavetes’s Husbands or Robert Altman’s California Split.

Most remarkable is the fact that it is a meditative film about a Black American family produced during an era characterised by the populist bedlam of Blaxploitation. Killer of Sheep’s quiet, elliptical storyline of a family in crisis stands in serious counterpoint to Shaft, Superfly, The Mack or Three the Hard Way – disposable movies about sex, violence and drugs that today are lauded by later generations who, ironically, do not suffer first-hand the ignominious implication that trash is the complete definition of their experience.

Burnett pursued art – as did Melvin Van Peebles with his avant-garde flourishes in Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song, the other unappreciated 1970s movie about Black American life – out of respect for moviegoers’ intelligence regarding race, class and humanity. Both filmmakers meant to confer nobility on poor, disenfranchised US citizens who, mostly being Black, are generally ignored by mainstream filmmakers. This has been Burnett’s continued pursuit and it shines like a beacon when revisiting his 25-year-old debut.

Killer of Sheep (1978)

Alex Cox: Killer of Sheep was your UCLA thesis film and I know that like me you regard the school in the late 1960s and the 1970s as something of an earthly paradise. But how did you end up there?

Charles Burnett: I went to school in Los Angeles but I was originally from Mississippi. I lived in an environment which didn’t stress education at all – most of the kids I grew up with didn’t think they’d reach 21. There was this notion that you lived some kind of tragic life and were going to come to some kind of tragic end. It was in the air.

At the schools I went to talent was discouraged. I remember sitting in class and a teacher saying, “You’re not gonna be any good! You’re not gonna be anything!” When I got to high school we had 1,000 students in the freshman class. We had a meeting in the auditorium, and the teacher was saying, “In the first month so many of you are going to drop out, and then…” and so on. And sure enough, only 150 people graduated from that 1,000 students. It wasn’t a nurturing environment. And then when the Vietnam war came, it decimated the community. I drifted into college to avoid the draft.

What year was that?

1963 or 1964. I realised the more classes you took, the better your chance of staying out of the draft. So all of a sudden I started getting interested in education. I majored in electronics because I’d taken that in high school. I did very well until I became disenchanted: that industry depended on government jobs, on war, and I couldn’t see myself being one of those guys. So I started taking creative-writing classes where I ran into a teacher called Isabel Zigler. She was a novelist and journalist, one of the few women war correspondents. People flew up to New York just to take this lady’s class! That was a turning point. It made me want to create stories about my environment, my experience.

So I transferred to UCLA. Anarchy reigned – you were self-taught, you learned from other students, the teachers were there for I don’t know what reason exactly. But it was fun – there was dialogue and there was always disagreement. The end-of-the-quarter screenings were a rite of passage. Making films taught us to be independent, to do everything ourselves, and reinforced the anti-Hollywood feeling. It also forced us to come up with our own ideas. Now everything is so derivative, but at UCLA the attitude was, “Have we seen it before? You’re in trouble.” And it was only $25 or $50 a quarter, for which you got a camera, editing facilities, a sound stage.

What made you decide to be a director rather than a writer?

One of the good things about UCLA was that you had to do everything. You’d turn in a screenplay, but at the end you had to make a film.

Killer of Sheep (1978)

Did you plan Killer of Sheep as a 90-minute film?

I planned it as a much longer film, as a trilogy, with the guy first in the slaughterhouse. In the second part he gets off work and goes on vacation, then refuses to go back to work because he’s become a human being. But then in the third part he’s forced by economics to go back to work.

I’d already extended my stay at UCLA, and they told me I had enough credits to get a degree without doing a film. I was taking everything – Russian, Italian – just to stay there. But I said, “No, I want to do my film.” They agreed in the end but they gave me a time limit – if they hadn’t kicked me out, I’d still be there, making films. I think most of us would. There was a group that was outside the university – who may have been there at one time – who came and made films at night.

It’s not like that now. I lectured there, and the students have professional people working on their films. Their films are a lot more expensive, and their only concern is, “How do I get in?” It’s not about art, or “I have this to say,” or “These are the stories I want to get out.” When we were doing our films, there wasn’t any means of exhibiting them, but we didn’t worry about that. There was a passion just to make the film. Looking back, it was good and bad. Most of us didn’t survive, but I think if we’d taken it more as a business, we’d have been wiser. But then we probably wouldn’t have done it. Because when you think too much you don’t get things done.

Did you shoot Killer of Sheep all in one block?

All in one block, but at weekends.

How many weekends?

It’s hard to say. When you use non-actors you have a lot of scheduling problems. You’ll get there with the camera and they don’t show up. That’s why it was such a small crew. It got to the point where it was just me and the kids making the movie, which was appropriate as the idea of doing the film was to demystify filmmaking in the community – to teach kids how to make films. I was into a group that was doing political films, that saw film as a tool to educate people, to do other things than to entertain.

You shot the film yourself?

Yes. My idea was to get a ‘scratchy’ look, but one of the things I realised afterwards was that I shouldn’t have tried to do everything in the camera. Later the timing becomes problematic. The kids did the sound, helped with the lighting. In some ways the film suffers from that, because the sound was done by people with no knowledge. In terms of lighting, I lit it as minimally as possible otherwise you’d realise it was all set up.

Killer of Sheep (1978)

So you were just shooting the bits you needed, the John Ford thing?

Killer of Sheep wasn’t meant to be screened outside UCLA. It was a response to those films with a romanticised social-realist plot, like ABC, where the guys all band together to solve a workplace problem, form a union, there’s a strike, things get resolved and life is happier. It didn’t happen like that in my life. Trying to get a job was one thing, then trying to hang on to it. These were not ‘issues’ – you had to pay the bills, try to stay out of trouble. Then there were historical problems keeping people down that needed to be addressed more than the middle-class view of their needs.

That’s basically what the film is about. It wasn’t showing what Black life is about – it’s only an impression. And I was in a radical mood, right? Now we can smile at that – you’re in college and you think you’re in this revolutionary mix, but when you get into the real world, it’s different. I lived in Watts and I used to go to a barber’s shop. There were these old guys there, from the South, who’d seen a lot of horrendous things and yet were very patriotic. I remember one day it was Paul Robeson’s birthday. And I came in with this, and they were so anti-Paul Robeson, and I said, “What? This is a guy who was fighting for you, standing up for your rights.” And they said, “Paul Robeson shouldn’t have said anything about this country.” So I discovered how conservative a lot of people in Watts were, particularly the older people. The Watts Riots were a young people’s thing, a kids’ thing. I realised everyone wasn’t ripe for revolution – we were in a dream world, trying to get people to march. Civil rights was one thing; but the Panthers was a young thing.

I recognised that because I’d been to college, I’d become ‘different’. I couldn’t be a spokesman for the Black community; everybody has to speak for themselves. So I had to make Killer of Sheep in such a way that it would be about events you would see in the community, but without imposing my views to the extent where it would be moving from one point to another with a resolution at the end. I was trying to show over a period of time what might have happened or what did happen. Because everything in this story did happen – these were all things I witnessed.

Did it seem to you a very funny film?

No, though there is this thing between humour and tragedy.

Where they get the car engine and they carry it down the stairs with great difficulty, and they put it on the pickup, and then it falls off…

Some of it is humorous, the other part is having gone so far, but not being willing to go an extra inch. Like carrying it all the way down, then all he had to do was move it just a little inch further back on the truck. I’ve seen it happen, and you just have to laugh afterwards.

I remember going to look for a job. There was this guy in his backyard, he had to go to work, and someone had stolen his car battery. He had a gun in his pocket and he was mad as hell. So I go into these other guys’ house, and discover they’ve stolen the battery. It turns out their car has a faulty generator. So every night they have to steal a battery so they can use the car in the morning. Rather than getting the generator fixed. Every night they would take another battery because that was the easiest thing. And it was also the most dangerous thing. I don’t want to call it stupidity, but it was a lack of foresight. It’s like when I used to buy used car parts. You go and pick one, you find it doesn’t work, you take it back. And the guy says, “Just put it back in the pile” – the same pile you’d be picking the next one from. It was a culture of doing what was expedient and what was simple. It was a problem for a lot of kids at the time. And that’s the reason I was making the movie: to talk about that particular problem and why they couldn’t get beyond it.

What happened after Killer of Sheep was finished?

It was shown at UCLA, then some people from the Robert Flaherty Seminar saw it and they wanted to screen it as part of their programmes. And so it got around by word of mouth. Then it got into the Berlin film festival and Rotterdam.

It’s like Sisyphus.

I thought of that image – the myth of Sisyphus, and the idea of struggling, and surviving, and it never ends. You get laid off but you keep going because it’s the only thing you can do. That defines you as a man, gives you dignity. Not quitting, even though you don’t have anything to show for it, means you can stand up and say, “I didn’t surrender, I tried to keep my family intact, and give them some sort of values.” I think that’s what you can achieve. What you do after that is icing on the cake.

The new issue of Sight and Sound

Hamaguchi Ryūsuke: insights on and from the Japanese auteur Plus: Mica Levi on their innovative score for The Zone of Interest – Víctor Erice interviewed about his masterful return to feature filmmaking, Close Your Eyes – a festival report from a politically charged Berlinale

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