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Black Film Series Begins With 'Sheep'

October 12, 1987|KEVIN THOMAS | Times Staff Writer

The Filmforum's "Principles of Freedom: Contemporary Independent Black Film" commences tonight at 8 at the Wallenboyd Center with Charles Burnett's astonishing "Killer of Sheep," which, except for PBS airings, has had shamefully little exposure since it was completed in 1978.

Only minutes into this beautiful and anguished documentary-like fiction film, you realize you are watching the work of a true poet, a man who understands the rich resources of his medium. Burnett knows how to tell a story with a camera rather than through dialogue. He also has the kind of confidence in holding a scene that brings to mind Fassbinder, and his sense of composition has the acuteness of Ozu. That Burnett remains in obscurity is as strong a comment as his film is in itself.

"Killer of Sheep" has no plot in the conventional sense, yet is accessible and familiar. With compassion, humor and a smoldering rage, Burnett observes several days in the life of an L. A. slaughterhouse worker (Henry Gayle Sanders, a wonderfully understated actor) and his family, who live in a worn old house in a black neighborhood where boredom and frustration are chronic.

Burnett shows us rather than tells us how precarious Sanders' hold is on the bottom rung of the lower middle class--how this decent, deeply despairing man is continually being tempted to turn criminal by his friends. Yet he has his pride: He refuses to be defined as poor because he is able to make donations to the Salvation Army. He also has a beautiful, steadfast and sensible wife (Kaycee Moore), and two children--an adolescent son and a small daughter.

"Killer of Sheep" exudes a strong sense of family, but its loving parents have yet to discover that their son is teetering on the brink of juvenile delinquency.

Burnett trusts in the power of simple images--e.g., Sanders and Moore dancing slowly in their living room, lit only by a large window behind them, and as a storyteller he could scarcely be more economic. It's not for nothing that he repeats several times a shot of a Judas goat quite literally leading lambs to slaughter, but he trusts his audience to know what a Judas goat is and its function. His use of vintage black pop music, the blues (and also some Rachmaninoff) is at once powerful and ironic.

"Killer of Sheep" is the most splendid example imaginable of talent being made to count for infinitely more than money.

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