The Los Angeles of Killer of Sheep is almost entirely the African American working-class neighborhood of South-Central. Architecturally, the ghetto differs from its counterparts in other cities in the predominance of single-family dwellings and small apartments. The cityscape is flat, monotonous, dilapidated, of limited imageability, and with no conspicuous internal differentiation. There are no signs of commerce except a single liquor store, or of industry except the slaughterhouse where the hero works.... And there are no signs of
connections with other parts of the city except, briefly, the Southern Pacific railroad that appears to share the area’s defunct lethargy; its tracks are children’s playgrounds and its engines mostly immobile. No trace of any other Los Angeles may be seen; no business districts, no supermarkets, no luxurious high-rise apartment or office buildings, no Technicolor sunsets, no homes of the stars— not even the Watts Towers. Most remarkable of all, there are no freeways. Indeed, there are almost no cars. And so nothing can happen.
In short, Burnett portrays the city itself with the same sense of exaggerated realism. In the only attempt to escape from their imprisonment, Stan and friends plan to picnic in the “country,” an outing foiled by a flat tire (the only tire the driver has). Is it any wonder that for these despondent individuals their lives, like that tire, seem inert?
This bitter Earth
At another moment, when Stan’s wife speaks out angrily of her own loneliness, his daughter climbs upon his knee as he tenderly holds her. Love, often grabbed on the sly whenever it is proffered, is clearly the only real hope these individuals have, their only possible salvation. And the film ends on a strangely uplifting note, as a physically handicapped friend of Stan’s wife announces that she is pregnant. The joy upon the women’s faces says everything: a new life—for all of them—has just been announced.
Los Angeles, May 22, 2007