Of Sheep and Men

I turned 8 in 1977 just before the beginning of fall, so most of the year, the heart of it, I was 7. What do I remember about being 7 or the '70s? Looking back, I'm aware of the factoids and detail

I turned 8 in 1977 just before the beginning of fall, so most of the year, the heart of it, I was 7. What do I remember about being 7 or the '70s?

Looking back, I'm aware of the factoids and details, the known history of the time — disco and rollerskating, Thurman Munson and Catfish Hunter, Jaws and The Amityville Horror. But what do we really remember?

I know now what Asheville, N.C. was about, how it hadn't begun the evolution that would transform it into the progressive haven it is now (although there are signs of plateauing that no one wants to acknowledge just yet because all that's left is the steep and likely precipitous decline). I know now that our state education ranking resided somewhere below the national cellar. I remember now how we looked forward to Sunday afternoons of Rick Flair and Andre the Giant at the Civic Center and the return of Billy Graham to save our souls.

But back then I knew what any kid knows. I knew about dodging rocks during rock fights in my buddy's backyard.

I knew how hard it was to shoot free throws the right way, because I always shot them from the right side of my body and not lined up from the center.

I knew it was best to do things the proper way, so I worked hard to retrain myself by watching basketball on TV and attending summer camps.

I knew about baseball because we played variations on the game in the street with either sticks and tape balls or plastic bats and balls, swinging wildly for the fences that didn't exist. There were no limits and no homeruns — unless you count the homeruns resulting from making good contact and running 'til you just couldn't anymore. Sometimes you might go around the bases more than once just because you could, because you were outside racing the heat and the wind, racing away from the sound of your mother's voice or your best friend's grandmother telling you it was time to come inside for dinner.

I'm remembering, or wishing I could, what it was like being 7 again after catching Killer of Sheep, the long buried student film of Charles Burnett from 1977. I saw it recently during our family's spring break trip to New York.

Burnett isn't a mainstream name, but those with a passing knowledge of film might remember his later movies To Sleep With Anger or The Glass Shield or his television adaptation of Dorothy West's The Wedding. He's a black filmmaker who bucked the notion that films about black folks during the 1970s had to be exploitative just because they featured poor folks living in the ghetto.

Set in Los Angeles, Killer of Sheep is about man from the South who, while working in a slaughterhouse to feed and care for his family, struggles to keep his head held high when everything around him seems bleak. He doesn't want to become one of the sheep being led to slaughter, but what else is there for him in this life?

What else was there for Burnett, when music clearances kept him from releasing his film for almost 30 years and when other filmmakers graduated from UCLA's film program and landed plum assignments with major studio dollars? What else was there for the kids in his film? They remind me so much of me and my friends, throwing rocks and riding bikes without helmets and watching our parents struggle to make ends meet and to make sure we knew there was something else out there for us.

I know Burnett even better now, and watching Sheep I realize that he knew me, the kid I was back in 1977. It's like he had his eye and his lens on me rather than actors he corraled during a year of weekend sessions with old scraps of film stock he pieced together into working reels.

I was one of those kids, but those kids could have been 10 or 20 years ahead of their time. They could have been Depression kids or children of the Reconstruction. I could have been, too.

And that is the genius of Charles Burnett, a man who toiled in his own version of the slaughterhouse — the Hollywood ghetto. Yet he's a recognized MacArthur Genius, and thanks to the select release of Killer of Sheep he is likely to enjoy a moment in the spotlight full of adoration from the film community's more independent, critical branch.

Burnett certainly knows that this fame will be fleeting and that once the lights dim he'll have only the memories of it. Memories he can count on to lull him to sleep at night.

The trick is in knowing how to hold onto them without killing them.

CONTACT TT STERN-ENZI: letters(at)citybeat.com. His column appears here in the third issue of each month.

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