Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Burnett's Killer of Sheep

Charles Burnett’s film Killer of Sheep is rife with metaphor for the hardship of growing up in an urban society below the poverty line. The majority of these metaphors are predominantly expressed visually throughout the film, although none have quite as much impact as the scene in which the protagonist, Stan, is working at his job at the slaughterhouse. Three sheep are pulled from the stifling crowd of livestock to be strung up together from the ceiling to move on to the killing floor. The on-screen visual then cuts immediately to a group of 3 boys from the neighborhood crowded onto one swerving bike as it travels down the street. The positions of the three boys are paralleled directly by the positions of the sheep during the cut, drawing the obvious comparisons between the boys and the sheep.

The implications of such a cut are vast and far reaching, with many layers of depth ranging from the most obvious issues of overcrowding in poor urban neighborhoods being akin to the conditions faced by sheep packed into slaughterhouses, to the much deep-seated commentary about the futures faced by these specific boys due to the nature of their upbringing. The sheep on their way to be slaughtered paralleled with the boys’ doing such a seemingly innocent activity of riding a bike down the street hints at their eventual approach into adulthood that can, because of the opportunities not afforded to them by their environment, end in very few ways.

In the final moments of the scene, we see the boys on the bike swerve to avoid an incoming car, falling from the bike and scrambling into the street to avoid being struck, again paralleling the children’s immediate danger in the scene with the eventual plight of the sheep and, although the children avoid it this time, the implications still remain.

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