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A film about have-nots is a have-to-see

A dollar really means something in Charles Burnett's "Killer of Sheep," a milestone of eloquent understatement that captures the daily life of have-nots as few American movies have.

Made in 1977 but never properly released in theaters or on video (the music rights were prohibitively expensive), the movie is set in the post-riots Watts section of Los Angeles, where poverty comes in degrees. There's poor, then there's some dude named Walter who lives in the neighborhood. Nobody's worse off than he is.

The director never shows us any Walter, but the point is clear. Things could always be worse: We could be Walter. Burnett was a recent graduate of UCLA's film program when he wrote and directed "Killer of Sheep," which has been almost impossible to see since it faded away 30 years ago.

At the time, Burnett, then 33, didn't have a huge inspirational well of black filmmakers to look to as role models or peers, either: there were Ossie Davis , Gordon Parks , Melvin Van Peebles , and Sidney Poitier . And by 1977, blaxploitation was pretty much dead. Burnett decided to make a portrait of the same class but in a different key. He opted for the serene emotional realism of Jean Renoir , Vittorio De Sica , and Satyajit Ray , instead, shooting in black-and-white and casting regular working folks (Soul Thompson , 300 lbs , and Cadillac are listed in the credits).

The film he made is a major landmark in American moviemaking: a vivid ballad for life as it was lived by people whom movie cameras could rarely seem to find. Pam Grier's house wasn't terribly far from this place, but she may as well have been living on Pluto.

Newly restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive, "Killer of Sheep" doesn't have much in the way of a plot. Impressionistically, Burnett shows us how adults and their children spend their days. The kids play. So do some of the grown-ups -- too much. And for a boy, becoming a man brings with it the realization that you're broke. The fact breaks out on Stan Jr. (Jack Drummond ) like a pimple. One day he's looking for his BB gun. The next he's shoveling Frosted Flakes into his mouth, telling his little sister, "I need money."

Their father -- played by Henry Gayle Sanders -- occupies the bulk of the film's 80-minute run time. He's the title character, who works in a slaughterhouse. His days presumably are long, though not as long as his face. Stan's wife (Kaycee Moore ), a beauty who's given to searching for her reflection in the lid of an aluminum pot, wants him to smile. Actually, she'd like a little more than that. They share a loving slow dance together that ends with her turning up the heat on their intimacy. The moment is gorgeous, but still he lets her walk out of the room. No surprise; Dinah Washington's "This Bitter Earth " is their song.

Stan's melancholy has range. He's well north of suicidal but south of content, existing in a state of constant striving. To his credit, he ignores a remunerative opportunity to go murdering with two thugs who seem to have sauntered over from "Shaft." He's not above the occasional dubious choice: using some of his paycheck to buy a doomed car motor, say. But lest you get the wrong idea, there is a powerful disdain for self-pity. The people of South Los Angeles, sometimes even Stan, crack jokes and smile . Burnett doesn't come on like some interloper, the way certain documentary makers do. His slim but commanding body of work, including "To Sleep With Anger " and "The Glass Shield, " would get around to outrage later.

Here no fist gets raised to the heavens (leave that to "Good Times"). Life in "Killer of Sheep" is merely being lived, with no acerbic socio-political commentary. When Stan's little girl sings along with an Earth, Wind, & Fire record, she mangles all the lyrics. That's funny. The appearance of Paul Robeson's version of "The House I Live In" on the soundtrack is as sharp as the irony gets.

And yet. And yet. This is a heavy movie. The dysfunction captured isn't so much familial (although in many houses it is) as institutional, infrastructural, and environmental. Cars don't drive. Men lug engines. And any old place can double as a playground: roofs, abandoned lots, you name it. Nothing works the way it's supposed to, not even common sense or lousy come-ons ("You 'bout as tasteless as a carrot," says one unimpressed woman).

What we have here is the other side of "A Raisin in the Sun," Lorraine Hansberry's play about the black American family's battle for upward mobility. Very little in "Killer of Sheep" is mobile. Very little goes forward. Life is the exception. In Burnett's movie, it defiantly goes on.


Killer of Sheep

Written and directed by: Charles Burnett

Starring: Henry Gayle Sanders and Kaycee Moore

At: Museum of Fine Arts, tonight and various dates through June 17

Running time: 80 minutes

Unrated (language, several scenes at a slaughterhouse)