The dominant narrative expression of life in the American ghetto is the urban tragedy, but there is also a parallel strain of comedy in the hood that runs from Amos N’ Andy through Dave Chappelle. Laughter as the tonic against nihilism. No film has incorporated both trends to such humane and disturbing effect as Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep. A neo-realist silent comedy talkie with a post-Watts riot backdrop.
The film alternates between feral children in the alley and the adults’ constant search to hustle up some more action. The narrative hinges on Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders) the eponymous butcher. He embodies a youthful desire for the warmth of mother’s milk with the bitter knowledge that the slums’ teat has gone dry. Burnett made the film in 1977, but prohibitively expensive music rights prevented a theatrical release until now. It is evident why Burnett held out. The rythm and blues soundtrack is a counterpoint to the world of gravel lots and cramped apartments. The fusion of music and images creates a country blues transposed to an urban beat. Barnett understood the sentiment that critic Albert Murray described: “The blues as such are synonymous with low spirits. Blues music is not. With all its so-called blue notes and overtones of sadness, blues music of its very nature and function is nothing if not a form of diversion.” But Burnett sees a community where this good time disposition is losing out to desperation. Low horizons and hearty souls seldom find harmony, certainly not in this case.