Charles Burnett, Killer of Sheep, 1977, stills from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 83 minutes.

THE FIRST IMAGE of Charles Burnett’s 1977 film Killer of Sheep is a child’s face, wet-eyed, as he stands castigated for not standing up for his brother in a fight. Inaction replaces wrath in this prologue, but the father’s punishing speech still resounds as the archetypal tale of fraternal responsibility: Cain and Abel. When the man yells, “You ain’t got nobody but your brother,” it is as if he is responding to the boy’s silent, biblical question. Yes, you are your brother’s keeper. The symbolic weight is made heavier by the fact that this particular family is not the heart of any ensuing drama.

Much has been written about the genealogy of Burnett’s film, its stylistic and thematic connections to Italian Neorealism, French New Wave, British social documentary, and the revolutionary impulses of Third Cinema. Rarely, however, has religion entered into critical conversations about Killer of Sheep. Burnett’s main characters never set foot in a church. On the contrary, the only time we see family and friends dressed up and piled into a car for what might be a Sunday outing, their destination is not the chapel but the racetrack. Nevertheless, Burnett’s leading man, Stan, is clearly plagued by an increasing spiritual aimlessness. Here is a person who cannot sleep, cannot have sex with his wife, who proclaims that he is “just working [himself] into [his] own hell.” That work takes place at a slaughterhouse, no less, where Stan leads crowds of sheep hurriedly to their death.

Stan’s ennui reverberates in the film’s structure, which only loosely connects a series of bleak vignettes. One minute, Stan and a friend are laboring to get a crusty used motor onto their truck and home in one piece (it doesn’t make it). The next, children are bounding across the roofs of apartment complexes with seeming invincibility. Scenes of children at play repeatedly punctuate Killer of Sheep, yet there are no playgrounds in sight, just the occasional “raggedy-ass bike.” The lack of safe, structured recreational facilities marks the extreme divestment in the black community of post-Rebellion Watts, but, as Jacqueline Stewart points out in her essay “Defending Black Imagination,” the physical landscape as depicted by Burnett also underscores “the interconnectedness of the threats to black bodies and minds in South Los Angeles.”

Frequent scenes throughout show children pelting both the barren ground and one another with rocks—a reminder of their limited options but also of the film’s first invocation of fraternal accountability. If the crucial question is whether we are our brothers’ keepers, we should remember in such scenes that Cain struck Abel (a shepherd) with a stone. At the same time, they recall the New Testament caveat that only he who is without sin can strike another, setting up a call to concepts of Christian brotherhood that dovetail with the calls to power through community responsibility at the core of black political activism at the time—a viewpoint never expressly articulated by Burnett’s characters.

In the key scene where Stan and his friend are lugging the motor, Stan repeatedly asks for help pushing it further up onto the truck’s bed. His friend ignores his pleas and as expected the motor goes tumbling as soon as the truck starts. The men drive off, leaving the hunk of junk in the middle of the street for someone else to deal with. Burnett never expected the film to be seen widely by audiences, black or otherwise—and even after its theatrical and DVD release thirty years later its reception continues to be limited. Still, the touchstone of Killer of Sheep is our obligation to our fellow man. Will we help our brothers, lead them to slaughter, or will we strike them ourselves?

Cameron Shaw

Killer of Sheep screens Tuesday, April 10 at the BAMcinématek as part of the Ghett’Out Film Festival.