The first feature (1977) of the highly talented black filmmaker Charles Burnett, who set most of his early films in Watts (including My Brother's Wedding and To Sleep With Anger); this one deals episodically with the life of a slaughterhouse worker. Shot on a year's worth of weekends for under $10,000, this remarkable work is conceivably the single best feature about ghetto life. It was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry as one of the key works in American cinema—ironic and belated recognition of a film that, until this recent restoration, had virtually no distribution. It shouldn't be missed. With Henry Gayle Sanders. 87 min. By Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago reader.
Try to ignore if possible, its overwhelming social/racial context. It seems this film has been adopted by the Library of Congress amongst other venerable institutions, to highlight the long neglected Black experience, as seen in American Culture. Of course you can't dismiss this context, but its a distraction from a small, achingly passionate and resonant film, and its also a distraction from the fact that Charles Burnett has struggled for decades to get the attention and funding he deserves. retrospective enshrinement doesn't help.
Sanders, a slaughterhouse worker, is the tired, depressed patriarch of a struggling family from the harshest suburbs of Los Angeles. Burnett bathes his impoverished characters in loving attention. It is not about their fortitude in the face of overwhelming odds. many of the characters are opportunistic or lazy and Burnett is not ashamed to reveal this.
More significant than the content though is the technique. There is a debt no doubt, to Cassavettes; acting improvised around simple key vignettes or exercises, stunning long takes and raw moments of intimacy.
His compositional style though is astonishing. Expressionistic black and white exteriors. A Close-up of a boy impishly popping his head out from behind a battered sign board, why?; zoom out to reveal the child holding it a as a shield whilst his friends throw stones at him in a desolate, desert wasteland. Exquisite played over a slow dance with his wife in silhouette against a living room window, dust motes everywhere.The golden moments pass and leave no trace according to Chekhov. It seems that Burnett though has recorded many of them for our pleasure.