Killer of Sheep, a remarkable social document about urban working-class African- Americans in the Watts district of Los Angeles, is now playing at the Wexner Center through tonight and Saturday at 7 p.m.

Director Charles Burnett shot the film over several weekends in the early 1970s, as a reaction to cartoonish and stereotypical blaxploitation films, and submitted it as his master’s thesis film at UCLA in 1977. Since then, the film languished in obscurity and had not been released due to music copyright issues. It is has been re-issued and is playing at various festivals and college campuses. A DVD release is scheduled for November.

Killer of Sheep focuses on several characters in the Watts community, which at this time, was just a few years removed from the 1965 riots. The rough-housing children, the ne’er-do-wells, and bored neighbors are played by non-professionals from the neighborhood, adding authentic appearances and mannerisms of real-life people. The focal point of the film, however, is on bored, insomniac slaughterhouse worker, Stan (Henry G. Sanders). Working long hours, he comes home, beaten down and detached. His wife (Kaycee Moore) makes earnest attempts to remain close to him, but is often frustrated by his seeming lack of interest. We can see the cause of this in juxtaposing scenes at the abattoir where Stan has the unpleasant job of preparing sheep for the slaughter. “I’m working myself into my own hell,” he says at one point. The routinely debilitating effects of killing the animals are apparent in a scene where Stan rejects his wife’s sexual advances after briefly dancing to Dinah Washington’s “This Bitter Earth.” Here we see the alienating aspects of work and the impact on family relationships. The couple has two kids, a teenage son who demands money from his little sister and the young daughter, who often gazes precociously at her parents and understands the rift between them. Through it all, Stan refuses to see himself as poor. “I ain’t poor. I give clothes to the Salvation Army. You can’t give to the Salvation Army if you’re poor.” It is quite common for working class people to make sense of their existence by comparing themselves to those on the lower rung of the social ladder.

There are several vignettes throughout the film. No definitive character arcs or plots, just moments of revelation, bleakness, and humor. These include a futile attempt to transport a used car engine and an aborted out-of-town trip to the race track. Each segment dwells briefly on its characters, telling their stories with few words. Burnett’s technique is to let the characters speak for themselves. His black-and-white cinematography accentuates the grit and banality of a declining city. The film’s soundtrack is an excellent mix of blues, jazz, gospel, and classic rhythm and blues, which add to the wistful mood of the film. Burnett’s film has been compared to Italian neo-realist films, but one can see comparisons from the French New Wave, Matthieu Kassovitz’s La Haine, Indian director Satyajit Ray to American directors John Cassavetes, Robert Altman, and Luis Bunuel’s Mexican contribution Los Olvidados.

Killer of Sheep is the one true film of working class black experience and it succeeds where the so-called “urban” movies (of past and present) and Spike Lee films do not. Its depiction of banality and cruelty of ghetto life, as a result of legacy of racial oppression, is something unique to African-American cinema, but the drudgery of working class life is something universal to everyone who has lived it.