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Charles Burnett’s Inner City Portrait: Revisiting Killer of Sheep and the post-Watts crisis on film


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By Jamie Isbell.

Charles Burnett’s UCLA thesis feature Killer of Sheep (1977) has become something of a retrospective masterpiece. A cult artifact speaking to one generation from another, and holding ground as one of the most clarified examples of mid-century European film flavours drifting into the cinematic record of black urban America. Many popular readings of Killer of Sheep have cemented the notion of America’s own “neorealism” onscreen (Dauphin 2011: 106). However, this obscuring of Killer of Sheep through the tint of European aesthetics distracts from the more fundamental politics of Burnett’s seminal work; a film that deeply articulates a period of socio-economic rupture, industrial anxiety and political neglect.

Corine McMullin perhaps phrases it most accurately when she states that Killer of Sheep, “is full of anger but without hate” (McMullin 2011: 4). After a decade of prolonged, perennial urban unrest, Burnett’s film observes a distinct stoicism that was often overlooked for the more dominant stories of the Black Power movement and the abrasion of Blaxploitation cinema. Many of the scholarly strides made on black independent cinema during this period highlight Burnett’s thesis film – along with other contributions made as a result of the UCLA film school cohort – as strengthening a type of new community cinema, whilst also recognizing influence from overseas. Although these two characteristics birthed by UCLA are accurate, the more fundamental issues Killer of Sheep unearths relate to a significant political shift. The film is a driveshaft for mobilizing a sense of both the help needed by politics at the time, and the neglected reality many faced.

hqdefaultAt its centre Killer of Sheep follows Stan, a tired yet solemn Watts resident. A slaughterhouse worker during the day, Stan embodies a certain ambivalent perseverance in the scattered and struggling South-Central district of Los Angeles that is still picking itself up after the upheaval of the 1960s. Burnett’s film is not a macro exposé of black life in LA; downsizing the metropolis and making the giant seem graspable. But instead the reverse; it emanates from a central character living in the periphery; it omits downtown for the charm and pulse of the margin; it offers a lens through which you momentarily see the gears of the black experience turn and grind. Although Burnett brushes aside the idea of partaking in any cinematic rebellion, it is a more significant rebellion that scarred his film’s backdrop, making his work a unique historical account for a time of political destitution and fear.

August Nightmares

Killer of Sheep occurs out of an interesting, whilst chaotic, period of American socio-political upheaval. Although the most volatile period of protest, rioting and concentrated urban violence took place towards the end of the 1960s – notably 1968, with the eruption of the Holy Week Uprising after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s assassination, along with several notable protests in London, Paris and Mexico City – the defining period pertaining to Burnett’s story takes place three years prior.

On the evening of 11 August 1965 a young, twenty-one year old Marquette Frye – a junior school friend of Charles Burnett’s – was pulled over by police and soon arrested for driving whilst intoxicated. His brother Ronald alerted their mother who quickly arrived on the scene, initially scolding her son but later channeling her anger at police officers. After a number of confrontations – between police, the Frye family and bystanders – crowds expanded from a few dozen to more than one thousand (Bullock 2003: 111-112). What began at 7:00pm had reached boiling point thirty minutes later when, as the official report put it, “distorted rumors” (ibid.: 111) of the incident spread throughout South Central LA, and into the Watts area. The aftermath of the weeklong rioting left thirty-four people dead, 1,032 people injured and almost 4,000 in police custody (ibid.: 109). The uprising in Watts was called by the subsequent McCone Commission Report a “spasm” and an “insensate rage of destruction” (ibid.). The McCone report highlighted various contributing factors to the Watts riots; notably reiterating it as “an explosion – a formless, quite senseless, all but hopeless violent protest,” (ibid.: 110) the causes of which ranged, according to the report, from lack of community leadership to contempt for authority (ibid.: 109)). Eleven months prior, on 2 July 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, however, the riots that tore through Watts in plumes of smoke and destroyed property, the “nightmare of August” as it was reported, signaled the problem still ran deeper than legislation.

KILLER OF SHEEP (1977)William J. Collins and Robert A. Margo closely examine the economics of the 1960s period and the impact rioting and protest violence had on property values during a period from 1950 to 1980. Early on in their assessment they present a data set which helps to frame the scale of violence during the 1960s protests, but more specifically the uprising in Watts in 1965. In their data they highlight a number of variables when unpacking the period. Most profound are the comparable number of riot-laden days in each year paired with the number of deaths. In 1968 for example – the most riotous of the decade, with significant riots in Detroit, Washington, D.C, Chicago and Baltimore – there were 289 noted days of rioting throughout the country and 66 deaths (Collins and Margo 2007: 853). In 1965 however, the year of the Watts riots, there were twenty-six times fewer riot-laden days, yet only six times less deaths. Along with the 3,000 cases of arson in LA alone in 1965, compared to 6,000 throughout the US in 1968, the intensity of violence Watts experienced is evident (Bullock 2003: 109).

Collins and Margo suggest in their analysis that the impact of riot activity in the urban environment and the resulting damage to property value was generally worse in areas of black concentration (2007: 877-878). The impact of rioting is not only felt through a sense of imminence – fear and hysteria. Nor is it simply through the direct action of the riots; looting, harm to residents and damage to property. But, the long-term damage done to the value of the urban space and the image of the black community as a result of the two processes combined. Burnett, on the repercussions of the Watts riots states, “When those areas were destroyed all the stores were closed, and it took a long time for the businesses to move back in […]. Watts lost its centre” (Wali : 12-13).

What Collins and Margo also point to, reflecting Burnett’s thoughts, is the occurrence of “endogenous economic decline” (2007: 878). This notion of an internal breakdown – the repercussions of the riots felt as an inner community concussion rather than the national headache expressed by the mainstream press – is crucial to situating Killer of Sheep in a post-Watts frame. Burnett’s lens does away with the violent archetypes of the black urban lone ranger or the dominating sexuality of Pam Grier. Instead, Killer of Sheep uses symbols of strength, not aggression, to highlight its cause. What is expressed is that community is the product of tightened family values, values that are, however, nearly impossible to secure.

Burnett expresses in his essay, “Inner City Blues,” “my community […] does not have a centre, does not have an elder statesman […] does not have roots” (Burnett  1989: 225). In light of this Killer of Sheep explores the possibility that, in the shadow of the riots and the failure of Watts to find its lost centre almost a decade after the uprising, there are distinct shifting centres being formed; between Stan and his wife; the children’s war games; and the transportation networks which once linked Watts to the rest of LA. As Thom Andersen says about the film in his video essay Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), “White America had declared a crisis of the black family as a cover for its campaign of incremental genocide against its expendable ex-slave population.” Here we find Killer of Sheep and the Watts it delicately observes positioned at the cleavage of political disrepute and internal fracture. The image of the Watts rioters and the uprising was considered nothing more than a destructive aberration or an unprovoked outbreak by the mainstream press at the time. However, as Art Kunkin of the LA Free Press wrote, the Watts riots were “an election without ballot boxes” (quoted in McMillian 2011: 42). The political undercurrent of the riots, as Kunkin states, was valuable. However, he also saw the foundations being laid “for reprisals against the negro community” (ibid.: 43). Much like the sheep in Burnett’s film, Stan and his family, along with others in Watts, were in a position of free-roam in a caged, isolated environment; led unknowingly towards their sad fate.

The Watts Ghost Trains

KILLER OF SHEEP (1977)The Watts Burnett offers in Killer of Sheep presents the scattered imperfections of the area after the 1960s. Two men stealing a television through the back of a house illustrates a humorous, yet damaging, presence of daylight robbery; the wandering of young children though the area’s side-streets and industrial wastelands points to the disintegration of educational support and familial structure; and the two men who discreetly approach Stan to carry out their dirty work symbolize the temptation and ubiquity of crime over legitimate employment. However, what casts a broader illustration of Watts’ peripheral downfall is Burnett’s focus on the industrial dismantling taking place not just in Watts, but also throughout the country.

KILLER OF SHEEP (1977)Los Angeles, as Reyner Banham points out, was built and determined by transport (2001: 57). However, this belief tends to misguide understanding towards the automobile and excludes the impact the railways had on the city’s development (ibid.: 57-65). Although the automobile would eventually kill off the rail industry with the arrival of major highways throughout the city, the railways adapted the way freight and people could travel. In a bittersweet history, Watts became the nexus for several train routes, notably the Red Cars of Pacific Electric that connected various destinations throughout LA (ibid.: 65). Banham goes as far to say, “It is doubtful if any part of Greater Los Angeles, even downtown, was so well connected to so many places” (ibid.: 155). However, with Watts acting as the “virtual creation” (ibid.: 65) of the Pacific Electric service and a major junction for rail traffic, when the surpassing automobile and the freeways waved the noose at the Pacific Electric service Watts’ status as a transportation centre was quickly stripped. As Banham concludes, “whatever else has failed Watts […] its isolation from transportation contributes to every one of its misfortunes” (ibid.: 155).

With Watts’ centrality to LA’s transportation network ending with Pacific Electric in the early 1960s, the area’s loss of its economic and industrial centre was the primer for the riots of 1965 to target its socio-political one. In Killer of Sheep, as much as the subtle craters left by the rioting of the 1960s, Burnett’s filmic language also comments on the reduction in value of a dying rail system and the swelling but troubled life of the automobile. Exploring the arid, desolate graveyard of a rail system that once served both freight and residents, the children of Killer of Sheep highlight the redundancy of Watts’ transportation ancestors. Shot from a slow-moving train Burnett captures the gang chasing after and hurling rocks at the passing freight train; a sign that the large, track-bound giants that do pass through the poor neighbourhood are just passing – not serving the people but serving a better purpose somewhere other than Watts.

Burnett’s inclusion of the old industrial ghosts of the city being heckled and explored with ease by a young, post-Watts boisterousness effectively reduces the dominance of industry. The ownership the children take over the crumbing construction sites of Watts points to the post-industrial era tightening its grip. When the group of children attempt to push the stationary carriage of a train with their friend lying under one of its wheels we are presented with one of Burnett’s many cinematic metaphors: the immovable old giant that once helped build the city, being hopelessly budged by a new generation expected to rebuild it. The old and static reduced to a playground for the energetic youth.

KOS_pic3While it may be the railway that falls central to Burnett’s commentary on the failings of industry and the implications for Watts, it is the automobile that is the subtle and more tragic tale. LA, a city whose highways and intersections flow with the automobile like blood in the veins of a giant, opens up interesting discussions concerning the impact made by the ubiquity of such a machine. In the same way that the car formed the contextual basis for Techno in Detroit during the 1980s, LA too was shaped and affected by its relationship to the pleasure of driving. However, through Burnett’s lens the automobile presents less of a pleasure, and more of a hindrance. When his protagonist Stan hopes to purchase a new engine for a car, the man selling the engine is found lying next to it in his tenement block. Man and machine, one and the same, equally docile and reluctant to move. Burnett’s metaphorical pairing of the injured, out of work Watts resident with the disconnected engine illustrates a more literal dilemma for the area; the blurring line between human and machine.

Unlike the lifeline it is downtown, Burnett’s automobile serves as the burden to Watts. The car makes plenty of appearances, but it too is experiencing a downfall; at one point it is the bare shell housing drunks; then it breaks down; and at the close of the film, after blowing a tyre, it is the thing that restricts Stan, his wife and their friends from escaping Watts for the day. Reflecting a period of anxiety concerning fuel, as Paula Massood highlights, the 1974 OPEC oil crisis only added to the list of industrial issues Watts was under attack from (2003: 150). As Massood goes on to say, this crumbling of the machine economy soon left Watts’ unemployment levels at almost “50 percent between the early 1970s and early 1980s” (ibid.). Although the automobile makes numerous appearances throughout Killer of Sheep, each occurrence is used to illustrate the incremental demise of industry in all its grimaces.

“Like birds in the trees”

24896_killer-of-sheep-4The children of Burnett’s Watts are as much a part of his film’s political and social commentary as the post-riot scars and industrial skeletons. A passing glance at David Gordon Green’s 2000 debut George Washington reveals a story distinctly influenced by Burnett’s poetic vista on the post-industrial youth. “The kids are so much a part of life, when you’re in the community that’s all you hear and see, they’re like birds in the trees,” says Burnett. Burnett rejects that filmmaking rule – don’t work with children or animals – instead creating a film that unobtrusively captures its youngest subjects in moments of naive adventure. The young and adolescent community of Watts punctuates Burnett’s film, striking delicate notes after the deafening crash of the 1960s. The youngest of Burnett’s cast wander and roam silently through the Watts wreckage, naturally unaware of the camera’s lens. Playing with Halloween masks and taunting the opposite sex in a dusty and desolate back alley. The turning of a corner through Burnett’s lens reveals a further, often sad, dynamic to the post-Watts generation.

KILLER OF SHEEP (1977)On their way to make a deal on the engine block, Stan and a friend walk between two towering tenement buildings in Watts while children occupy the surrounding curbs, streets and communal areas. Burnett tilts his camera to the gap between two rooftops. Emulating Stan’s insomnia and his repeated slaughtering of sheep, the children bound from one roof to the other like the counting of sheep in Stan’s restless subconscious. Through Burnett’s lens the post-Watts generation signals a shifting attitude towards leadership in the community. Burnett’s children are the ones that will grow into the cultural explosion of Hip-Hop, Techno and a whole economy of black self-expression. However, the fantasy of these new industries – notably the undercurrent of many of Spike Lee’s films – was merely dream material at a time when the population of this young generation was rising, with unemployment figures overshadowing (Massood 2003: 150-151). As Massood remarks on later black images, “It is no surprise that the majority of the young men in Boyz [n the Hood] and Menace [II Society] are unemployed” (ibid.: 151).

Burnett’s adolescent, post-Watts generation reveals something broader than the ignorance of youth. His children unsettle and dismantle the rigid monotony of work and the ever-tougher relationships between the neighborhood’s older residents. “Like birds in the trees” they flutter and squawk throughout Watts’ narrow alleys and open industrial graveyards. In this sense Burnett’s choice of title perhaps points to the perspective his film ultimately projects. Killer of sheep – it is as unequivocal as cutter of metal, fixer of cars, driver of trains, and maybe even, maker of films. It is this straightforward, youthful perspective on life in Watts that emanates from the title’s subtext and allows the film to get a vantage closer to the ground. The lucid observation of Burnett’s community is what characterizes Killer of Sheep’s brilliance. Burnett’s film has not only succeeded in telling the story of a generation rocked by the 1960s, disorientated by the demise of transportation networks and industrial centers, and left praying for posterity, but is in a broader stroke a cinematic compass that points to a forgotten cultural location in a chaotic American past.

The BFI Southbank will be hosting a screening of Killer of Sheep followed by a masterclass with Charles Burnett and producer Ray Brown on October 5. Burnett is set to release his upcoming feature 83 Days: The Murder of George Stinney Jr in 2014.

Jamie Isbell is a London-based writer who focusses on film and visual culture. He also produces video work for artists and designers.

References

Banham, Rayner (2001), Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Bullock, Paul (2003), “Watts: The Aftermath” in Alexander Bloom and Wini Breines (eds.), “Takin’ it to the streets”: A Sixties Reader, second edition, New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 108-116.

Burnett, Charles (1989), “Inner City Blues” in Jim Pines and Paul Willemen (eds.), Questions of Third Cinema, London: BFI Publishing, pp. 223-226.

Collins, William J. and Robert A. Margo (2007), “The Economic Aftermath of the 1960s Riots in American Cities: Evidence from Property Values,” The Journal of Economic History, Vol. 67, pp. 849-883. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40056402. Accessed 28 February 2013.

Dauphin, Gary (2011), “Above It All: Charles Burnett Puts Black Power in Subtle Films” in Robert E. Kapsis (ed.), Charles Burnett: Interviews, University Press of Mississippi, pp. 106-108.

Massood, Paula J. (2003), Black City Cinema: African American Urban Experiences in Film, Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

McMillian, John Campbell (2011), “A Hundred Blooming Papers: Culture and Community in the 1960s Underground Press” in Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America, New York: Oxford University Press.

McMullin, Corine (2011), “Black Independent American Cinema: Charles Burnett” in Robert E. Kapsis (ed.), Charles Burnett: Interviews, University Press of Mississippi, pp. 3-4.

Wali, Monona (2011), “Life Drawing: Charles Burnett’s Realism” in Robert E. Kapsis (ed.), Charles Burnett: Interviews, University Press of Mississippi, pp. 10-24.

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