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Killer of Sheep is a 1978 film directed by Charles Burnett.

Stan (Henry G. Sanders) is a black man living in the Watts ghetto of Los Angeles. He works in a meatpacking plant that slaughters sheep. His story is the life of the urban poor black underclass, struggling to exist in an unjust society. Stan's quiet despair about his lot in life has rendered him unable to sleep and robbed him of any sexual interest in his wife, and leads him to be overly strict with his two young children. Time passes, and things happen—the family plans to go to the racetrack, Stan wants to get an old car running—but little changes. Stan seems unable to break free of his existence.

For decades, Killer of Sheep was one of the most famous Missing Episodes in film history. The film was shot on No Budget by Burnett for his master's thesis, but it was filled with a rich soundtrack, featuring among others Dinah Washington, Paul Robeson, Earth, Wind & Fire, and Louis Armstrong. This made it completely impossible to show the film commerically as the rights to the soundtrack were far too expensive. For nearly thirty years the film was limited to free screenings at art festivals and the like. Finally, after a fundraising campaign that included a $75,000 check from Steven Soderbergh, the film was restored and released on home video in 2007.

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Compare Felicia, a documentary short made in Watts about a decade prior to this film.


Tropes:

  • Crapsack World: Watts in the late 1970s, filled with the urban poor who struggle for a way to escape.
  • Deliberately Monochrome: Because that was all Burnett could afford, but it fits the despairing mood perfectly.
  • Free-Range Children: Childcare obviously is often beyond the reach of the urban poor. The kids of the neighborhood are running around everywhere loose, throwing rocks at passing trains, literally leaping from roof to roof of apartment buildings.
  • Idiot Ball: Stan and his buddy have acquired an old engine which they hope to install in an old car and get the car running. They place it on the back of a truck, which doesn't have a rear door to its cab. Worse, they are pointed uphill on a road with a steep incline. Guess what happens when they start the truck?
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  • The Insomniac: Stan's despair has apparently robbed him of the ability to sleep. When two of his friends note that his light was on at 3 am Stan tells them that they should have come in, because he's always awake.
  • Job Title: Killer of Sheep
  • Kitchen Sink Drama: A portrait of life among the poor people living in the Watts ghetto.
  • The Loins Sleep Tonight: Stan has lost interest in sex. In one scene Stan and his wife are dancing, and she tries to initiate intercourse, only for him to walk away. In another scene she asks him directly to take her to bed, only for Stan to ignore her.
  • No Animals Were Harmed: Averted, with scenes taking place in an actual meatpacking plant.
  • No Name Given: Stan's wife is never named.
  • Roof Hopping: Something the kids of Watts do to amuse themselves. From the tops of three-story buildings. Between roofs that are at least eight feet apart.
  • Slice of Life: There's no unifying plot, simply a series of scenes portraying Stan's life. Stan tries to buy a car engine. Stan cashes a check only to have the lady store owner make a pass at him. Stan can't sleep. Stan wants to go to the racetrack.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: The first scene of Stan slaughtering sheep at the meatpacking plant is accompanied by a strangely whimsical woodwind-and-strings score.
  • Those Two Bad Guys: Smoke and Scooter, who are seen stealing a TV from someone's home, and later try and get Stan to help them commit a murder.
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