Flippant Remarks about Killer of Sheep

Charles Burnett, Killer of Sheep I think it is an interesting exercise to look at the beginning of the film career of David Lynch and that of Charles Burnett. Both released their first feature-length film in 1977 and, to me, both have a similar eye for ‘bizarre’ characters and visual compositions. It is interesting to me how their artistic lives turned out—especially because of the temptation for young black college kids of the post-Reagan era to assume that someone like Charles Burnett did not make many films because of some limitation within Charles Burnett. What I find is that these assumptions have nothing to do with an examination of Burnett himself—these assumptions are often fueled by pitiful black-kid childhoods replete with dead-beat dads and other real-life stereotypes. Sometimes the search into the deep of psychology reveals a young person wanting it to be all Charles’ fault—in the same manner rape victims “bring it on themselves”… this is a great way for young Americans to avoid resisting what they see as infinitely powerful… and the resistance that I am talking about here has nothing to do with getting in some sissy punches in on a cop during a street demonstration: the priority for me is resistance in thought—for foundational realization of consciousness.

Scenes in Burnett’s Killer of Sheep can play comfortably right next to outdoor explorations from Blue Velvet or an introspective close up from Twin Peaks. Check out his close up: This woman, the owner of the liquor store, dominating and actually sexually harassing “big black” men is simultaneously funny, bizarre and ominous—when you let in a little Toni Morrison slavery-era imagery. This woman’s cameo performance is so powerful it becomes clear why a brother would rather rob a liquor store than work in one. I can’t see David Lynch talking about that face and that moment as completely not his style. Let an updated scene like this play in something like Weeds and the critics would surely call it “cutting-edge” and something of a “new” era. But the O.G. was over 30 years ago… Like any brother under the influence of DJ/research-librarian culture, for me it’s all about the O.G.—because imitators too often can’t teach as well as the originals.

Charles Burnett, Killer of Sheep Killer of Sheep was shot in 1977—and I mean the film was shot in 1977. Since I was nine years old in 1977—born and raised in Los Angeles—I can feel this vision of 1977—right down to the STP stickers and Carnation milk (what the f’ kind of name is “Carnation”?). My childhood imagery was not always as bleak as the scenery in this film but the psychic texture of the place Burnett makes records how oppression becomes a part of the air we breathe. And this was the atmosphere before it really got horrible in the 1980s with the advent of crack cocaine consciousness that totally eclipsed Blackness to be made famous under the direction of John Singleton with Ice Cube in the gang-bangin’ crew…

Another one of things Killer of Sheep faithfully records is the state of Black females in 1977. When was the last time you saw a ten-year-old girl climbing on the roof of an apartment building for fun? I now think it unusual to see the girls as lean and rough-and-tumble as the boys these days. This athletic equality (often supremacy) of little girls around the way is captured almost as an afterthought by Burnett—and should be seen in stark contrast to the rampant, childhood inner-city, obesity of today. I really miss those girls… I thought we could grow up together…