Date of Award
Master of Arts in American Studies (MAST)
Dr. Robbie Lieberman
Dr. David A. King
Charles Burnett’s 1978 award-winning film Killer of Sheep directly responded to the then-popular Blaxploitation genre, holding a mirror up to post-Watts, 1970s America, while exposing and exploring gender and race issues. Moreover, intentionally or not, Burnett, with this film, effectively demonstrated the lack of recognition that Black women faced in domestic, activist, and employment spheres; simultaneously, Burnett conspicuously reified the relegation of women into that silent, domestic sphere while challenging stereotypes of Black men, elevating them and establishing them as humans, capable of hubris, humanity, and vulnerability. This neo-realistic film masterfully rebirthed the African American male identity; unfortunately, though, neglected to uplift Black women from the roles that far preceded Blaxploitation.
Blaxploitation largely perpetuated socially-destructive stereotypes of the African American family and community as a whole. Killer of Sheep responded by revealing the complexity of African American families, as opposed to Blaxploitation’s two-dimensional, caricatures of African Americans. In this thesis I demonstrate the relationship between the historical cultivation of images of African Americans in the media and expectations of African American women. I then position Killer of Sheep in its rightful place as a response to Blaxploitation and argue that while Burnett elevated the African American man and even family, he wrongly disregarded African American women as powerful and independent, leaving them to respond to the newly-elevated Black male. Ultimately Killer of Sheep is an avant garde film functioning as a site of resistance in the more popular sea of Blaxploitation, and deserves scholarly attention.