Popular Memory in Killer of Sheep.

Throughout film history, there have been landmark independent African American directors.  From Oscar Micheaux to Ivan Dixon, black indies have always been a type of underground cinema.  Today there are not many copies of these films and this makes them very hard to find.  However, these films have attempted to shift the way African Americans have been portrayed.  For example, Oscar Micheaux created his films to counter the stereotypes found in D.W. Griffith’s much praised Birth of a Nation.  However, there is another landmark independent African American director by the name of Charles Burnett.  Through his movies, such as Killer of Sheep, Burnett set out, just like Micheaux, to counter the image of African Americans in film, especially during the Blaxploitation era.  However, there is a very interesting question to be posed here.  Why would Burnett want to counter the images of the superspade during the Blaxploitation era?  What was the L.A. School of Rebellion rebelling against?  The point of this essay is to examine how Burnett uses popular memory through his character Stan to counter the official history behind the Blaxploitation superspade.

The terms official history and popular history derive from Third Cinema aesthetics and are explained in depth in Teshome H. Gabriel’s article, Third Cinema as Guardian of Popular Memory: Towards a Third Aesthetics.  According to Gabriel, “Official history tends to arrest the future by means of the past.  Historians privilege the written word of the text- it serves as their rule of law.  It claims a ‘centre’ which continuously marginalises others.  In this way its ideology inhibits people from constructing their own history or histories.” (Gabriel, 53).  In other words, history plays out like a story, where only certain parts are recorded and other parts that are deemed too “dangerous” are left out.  As for popular memory, Gabriel says “Rather, it is a ‘look back to the future’, necessarily dissident and partisan, wedded to constant change.” (Gabriel, 54).  When looking at the history of the superspade, it is not hard to see that it is an archetype that resides in the official history of the media.  However, it is important to look at how Burnett used popular history through his character Stan in order to counter the image of the superspade in official history.  Hollywood created Blaxploitation as a cheap and fast way to produce films for this new generation of African American audiences, without worrying about the true portrayal of African Americans or filmic art (Guerrero, 70).

This idea of official history is very much connected to the Blaxploitation archetype of the superspade.  According to the Ed Guerrero article, The Rise and Fall of Blaxploitation, Guerrero talks about how the archetype of the superspade first came about in the 1970s through the interaction of “three broad, overdetermining conditions of possibility.” (Guerrero, 69).  The first Guerrero says is the paradigm shift from the Civil Rights movement to black nationalism leading African Americans to want to be correctly portrayed in the media (Guerrero, 69).  Guerrero also says another factor was the near economic collapse of the 1960s film industry (Guerrero, 70).  The third factor is the result of the first two, in which it realized the potential rise in African American audience members (Guerrero, 70).  Guerrero mentions that the film industry did change this image of African Americans, but this new image of the superspade was only a more subtle and masked form of degrading African Americans (Guerrero, 70).  Guerrero also mentions that when Hollywood no longer needed African Americans to get back on its feet, it got rid of its cheap Blaxploitation entertainment and went back to traditional archetypes of African Americans (Guerrero, 70).   Hollywood used African Americans to rebuild their industry while at the same time making them believe they were being fed accurate images of themselves.  Film history will remember Blaxploitation as just another film movement that tried to appeal to the ideologies of the 1970s.  This romanticizing of Blaxploitation is why it is part of official history. Charles Burnett started his film career in Los Angeles at UCLA, where he created Killer of Sheep.  Back then, a film movement began there around this time called the black independent movement and Burnett was part of the first generation of this new film movement.  Charles Burnett, however, also made movies around the time of the social movements of the sixties, but were not as popular as the Blaxploitation films (Masilela, 107).  Burnett was part of the first generation of the black independent movement at this time, which started in Los Angeles at UCLA, known as the L.A. School of Rebellion (Masilela, 107).  During this time, Burnett and other influential directors of this movement started their own film club in which they would view films from the Third Cinema movement, especially films from Latin America (Masilela, 107).  The goal of these filmmakers was to counter the force behind these negative stereotypes such as the coon or the superspade, which is called official history.  To do this they would need to use another force known as popular history in their films.  This would involve using popular history to counter the images of African Americans portrayed in the official history in the media by trying to portray not the reality, since reality can never be fully captured in the cinema, but by portraying something very close to African Americans and the harsh conditions they endure in the inner city.

The main character in the Blaxploitation film Superfly is named Youngblood Priest and fits the stereotype of a superspade.  Unlike his early predecessor, the ebony saint, the super spade possesses qualities that would have normally made him a buck.  The superspade is a hypersexualized male, who lives the inner city and is usually a criminal such as a pimp or drug dealer.  The superspade is not afraid to sleep with white women, but prefers black women much more. This hypersexualization of the superspade is an inherent quality of another archetype known as the buck.  This hypersexualization was done to glorify the superspade, which would say to African American audience that this kind of machismo is cool or acceptable in society.  The main character of the movie, Stan, is undersexualized just like the ebony saint, but still has a desire for sex (Grant, 140).  This is clearly expressed in one scene in Killer of Sheep, where the main character, Stan, is sitting in the kitchen drinking coffee with his friend.  The Stan talks about what it would be like to have sex with a beautiful woman, but then his wife stands at the door in her bathrobe and the husband does not seem aroused.  Burnett could be questioning the idea of black male sexuality here.  In other words, Burnett must be asking the question, “What does it mean to be a black man?”  According to the official history of the media, the black man can either be undersexualized like the ebony saint or oversexualized like the buck or superspade.  Stan’s undersexualization is shown again in the scene where he goes to buy something at the liquor store and the older white woman hints at her sexual attraction towards him (Grant, 141).  She does so by looking at him in a certain way and smiling, but Stan tries to downplay this.  However, she proceeds to touch his hand and invite him to work in the back room with her.  The main character again politely refuses.  Just like the ebony saint, the Stan will not approach white women; however, the director might also be hinting in this scene that it is not black people who are oversexualized, but white people.  The director could also be including the old ideals of family into Stan, in which he would not cheat on his wife (Grant, 143).  By implanting these old ideas of family into his character, Burnett could be saying that these old ideas are part of the popular memory among African Americans and that they are not the oversexed archetypes presented by the official memory of the media.  Burnett could also be saying that the official memory of the media has affected Stan by making him chaste, just like the ebony saint.  One final example of the main character’s undersexualization occurs in the scene where a couple of black militants approach the main character on his front porch to join their cause.  When he refuses, they begin to argue with him and his wife comes out of the house and stands up for him.  When she gets into an argument with the militants, he does not even jump in to help his wife, which would normally be a man’s role (Grant, 140).  This shows the ambiguous nature of black manhood in Burnett’s film.  In other words, he is again questioning what it is that makes a black man.  Is it the media or something else?

In Blaxploitation films, the characters are not shown to have a problem with their living conditions.  This could be due to the official memory of the media, which would not show the true difficulties of the inner city, but only glorifies them.  In the movie, Superfly, Priest is not shown to be dissatisfied with his surroundings, but only his job as a drug dealer.  Burnett, however, expresses Stan’s dissent with his living conditions.  This is shown, first of all, through the fact that this film was shot in a cinema verite style.  In other words, it looks like a documentary or biography rather than some cheap entertainment film.  This is an aspect of Third Cinema, in which the filmmaker tries to not to capture reality, but something very close to it. Killer of Sheep does not tell the story of one man, but of an entire race, which is the African American race.  This is reflected in Gabriel’s article when he says “A critical scrutiny of this extended sense of autobiography (perhaps hetero- biography) is more than an expression of shared experience; it is a mark of solidarity with people’s lives and struggles.” (Gabriel, 58).  Killer of Sheep is not about the struggles of Stan in the inner city, but of African Americans in the inner city.  This is also why Stan is also an archetype, because he does not share the individual experience of African Americans, but a majority of them.  Burnett did this, because he wanted to show through this style of filmmaking that this film is derived from the popular memory of African Americans and not the official history of the white controlled media.

Burnett expresses Stan’s dissatisfaction with his present life to express through popular memory the dissatisfaction with the inner city of African Americans and does so in a few ways.  In the first part, he uses the scene mentioned above where he has the Stan sitting in his kitchen expressing his sexual desire while sipping tea.  As mentioned before, this could mean he wants to leave his present condition and to live with someone else.  This scene is very real, because people who usually live in poor conditions such as the inner city want to leave their problematic lives and live somewhere less stressful.  However, this scene is still fantasy, because Burnett is using the popular memory of a majority of African Americans, he cannot portray every African Americans experience with the inner city. This is part of the popular memory Burnett wants to instill into the character of Stan.  Burnett also wants the audience can also feel the harshness and fatigue filled environment of the main character in order to show the harshness inner city life through the popular memory of African Americans and not through the official history of the media.  For example, in the scene where he is at work, each shot shows him doing something unimportant such as washing his hands, preparing the meat hooks, or hosing down the butcher room.  This was done the show the monotonous day to day work Stan has to go through.  Then there is a scene where Stan is home and is under the sink trying to fix it.  The audience sees him in only his vest and is covered in sweat.  Burnett used this scene to convey this aspect of popular memory, which this “no rest for the weary” aspect of inner city living.

The superspade and Burnett’s main character Stan do have one thing in common and that is their living environment, which is the inner city.  However, the way inner city life portrayed in each movie is very different.  The inner city portrayed in Blaxploitation films is a dangerous environment filled with criminals, poor African Americans, and black militants. At the beginning of the movie Superfly, Youngblood Priest goes to an apartment building to make a drug deal and ends up getting robbed by two men.  However, he is well adapted to the kill or be killed attitude of the inner city and struggles with them and chases them down the street until he cannot catch up with them. Again, the violence of the inner city is glorified in this official history of the media.  In Burnett’s films, the inner city is portrayed in a much different light.  For example, in the scene at the beginning of Killer of Sheep, the main character is scolding his son for not protecting his little brother when he got into a fight.  The father warns his son that the boy is now a man.  This is not what is normally told to a little child in the mainstream media, however, Burnett wanted to show this survival of the fittest aspect of this inner city in the film.  This is the popular memory of the movie, in which African Americans struggle to survive in the inner city is “real” unlike the superspade whose struggles are romanticized.

Burnett portrays another aspect of popular memory, which is the loss of innocence.  As mentioned in the scene above, Burnett mentions this early initiation into adulthood for inner city children.  Two more examples in Killer of Sheep are the scene at the beginning of the film where children are throwing rocks at one another in fun and the next scene is the one close to the end where there is a woman shooting at her husband.  This shows that the children in the inner city are exposed to a lot of danger and violence when they play their “harmless” games (i.e. rock throwing or lying underneath trains).  The man and the woman, however, show the result of exposure to the dangers of the inner city and how it can lead to this type of violence (Grant, 143).  Perhaps they too had experienced such dangerous fun when they were children, but now it has escalated to a much grander scale.  The first scene with the boy hiding behind the piece of wood represents the innocence of childhood and the scene where the man hides from his wife, represents the loss of this innocence.  Here, Burnett is saying that according to popular memory, the inner city is a place where innocence is lost and initiation into violence is inevitable.  The superspade, according to official history, glorifies the use of violence and how it can influence its audience, especially African Americans.  This is shown in the film in the first scene, where Stan Jr. hides behind a piece of wood to shield himself from the rocks (Grant, 143).   The playful activities of these children are very dangerous, but Burnett could be saying here that the glorification of violence in Blaxploitation movies and in the media surround these children and encourage them to engage in these violent activities.  This is also what makes this scene a fantasy.  Children in the inner city may not play the way Burnett portrays in Killer of Sheep, but he used this scene to critique the glorification of violence in the media, especially Blaxploitation films. Then, in the next scene, the man hides behind a stone wall to shield himself from the woman’s bullets (Grant, 143).  This shows that this violent encouragement of the media has extended from the children into the adults, causing them to enact the violence in the media.

Burnett also portrays this loss of innocence in the first scene, when Stan’s daughter is first introduced in the movie, she walks into the kitchen wearing a dog mask.  The dog mask is a symbol of childhood innocence.  Stan’s daughter loses her innocence in the scene after Stan Jr.  gets scolded by his father.  She goes outside and stands next to a little boy.  She leans against the fence as if trying to appeal to the boy sexually.  In another scene, her brother in a fit of anger against his parents rips off his sister’s mask.  In doing so, Stan’s daughter loses her “innocence” just as she loses her mask. This use of popular memory conveys the fact that another reason childhood innocence is not maintained in the inner city is this aspect of early initiation into sex.

Finally, the character of Stan Jr. differentiates from Priest due to their economic status.  In Superfly, Priest seems like a very well to do person.  He wears a beautiful coat, expensive clothing, and has a luxurious apartment, which also serve to show his incredible machismo.  This type of economic status is commonly portrayed in Blaxploitation films, because it is also present in the ebony saint.  The superspade can’t just be another poor African American, he must be the best or in this case, one of the richest African Americans in the inner city.  However, this is not so with the films of Charles Burnett.  In Killer of Sheep, Stan is shown to be of a low economic status, because he is just another poor African American citizen living in the inner city and not some glamorious archetype from official memory.  The first thing the audience notices about Stan is that he mostly seen without a shirt and a vest instead.  This is a testament to his poor economic status.  His house is not very luxurious and when he is at home, he is shown in his vest and does not wear fancy clothes like that of Priest and shows that he does not possess the same amount of machismo as the superspade.  Stan’s family is also portrayed as poor in one particular scene.  This is the scene where Stan Jr. is sitting at the breakfast table and turns to his little sister and tells her he needs some money (Grant, 142).  This is in stark contrast to the official history’s superspade is extremely rich and well to do and just like his counterpart the ebony saint, he is better off than those who live in the ghetto.  Burnett’s use of popular memory here counter’s the superspade’s well to do image through Burnett’s character Stan by portraying him not as a hero as the superspade, but as a human being trying to survive in the harsh conditions of the inner city.

In conclusion, the archetype of the superspade is part of the official history of Hollywood, because it was formed out of Hollywood’s desperation to get back on its feet.  Burnett, however, tried to counter this image by using popular memory through his character Stan. The differences between the superspade and the character of Stan are deeply rooted in official history and popular memory.  The superspade, is oversexualized and possesses an incredible machismo and economic status through his clothes, his apartment, and his beautiful coat.  The other is that of the character of Stan in Killer of Sheep, who is undersexualized and does not posses an incredible machismo or economic status.  The superspade was created out of an era of Hollywood as a means to make a fast buck.  Burnett’s characters are created to counter the official memory of the media by instilling popular memory into his characters to counter previous stereotypes such as the superspade.   By doing so, Burnett hoped to portray African Americans as they actually are, which was the goal of Oscar Micheaux.  One thing remains clear: the character of the superspade will always be remembered in film history, but Burnett’s films are very rare and may not be remembered as well as Blaxploitation.  Which ever one comes close to an accurate portrayal of African Americans is in the eye of the beholder.


Works Cited.

Grant, Nathan.  “Innocence and Ambiguity in the Films of Charles Burnett.”  Representing Blackness: Issues in Film and Video. Rutgers Univ. Press.  NewBrunswick, NJ.  135- 155.

Masilela, Ntongela.  “The Los Angeles School of Black Filmmakers.”  The Los Angeles School. Manthia Diawara, ed.  NY.  Routledge. 107- 117.  1993.

Guerrero, E.  “The Rise and Fall of Blaxploitation.”  Framing Blackness:  The African American Image in Film. Phil.  Temple Univ. Press.  69- 111.  1993.

Pines, Jim and Willemen, Paul.  Questions of Third Cinema.  Gabriel, Tershome H.  “Third Cinema as Guardian of Popular Memory: Towards a Third Aesthetics.”  British Film Institute.  1990.  53- 64.



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