The impact of past cinema aesthetics on the black realist movement of the LA Rebellion can be analysed within Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep. Through the emphasis of everyday struggles and the extension of narratives beyond the individual, the film’s content and structure reflect a direct influence of Italian Neorealism and Third Cinema on the portrayal of class and social strata in 1970s urban Los Angeles.
While studying Masters of Fine Arts at UCLA, Charles Burnett was a member of the ‘LA Rebellion’, a collective of African American students studying Masters of Fine Arts at UCLA. The collective were concerned with representing the daily struggles of the African American community and created films which focused on the exploration of black lives, free from stereotypes and the required narratives which appealed or were relatable to white audiences. The LA Rebellion redefined black on screen, adopting from both Italian Neorealism and Third Cinema to formulate an aesthetic of black realist films which were unique to the current lived experiences of African Americans and separated from classicism and traditional cinematic structures.
In the 1948 Italian Neorealist film Bicycle Thieves, directed by Vittorio De Sica, the plot revolves around a working class man in postwar, post fascist Italy and his quest to recover his stolen bicycle which has become the mechanism through which he will liberate his family from their current poverty. This is reminiscent of the scene in Killer of Sheep during which Stan (Henry G. Sanders) purchases the motor needed to fix his car. After loading it onto the back of the truck and beginning to drive away, the motor falls off and is rendered useless. The scene functions as a metaphor for immobility both physically and socially, as cars are used to indicate agency throughout the film. The lack of a working car reflects the lack of social mobility of the working class in a post industrialised society and the lack of social mobility of the African American community as a whole. Like the stolen bicycle in Bicycle Thieves, which represents “much more than the loss of material security…it also means the loss of Ricci’s pride and hope for a better life”, the motor would grant Stan a greater status and social traction and when taken away it builds upon his disillusionment surrounding failed expectations and opportunities. The absence of physical movement is further reinforced later in the film when a flat tyre causes the family to return to Watts; demonstrating that they are literally incapable of moving beyond their surroundings.
In his work, The Sociological Imagination, C. Wright Mills makes the distinction between private troubles and public issues, stating that becoming conscious of how they interact and intersect allows one to transcend the intimate personal sphere. He argues that developing a sociological imagination is alienating to the modern mind, and as a person becomes more aware of how their immediate life transcends into larger and more prominent social milieux, the more imprisoned they can begin to feel. While more subtle in Killer of Sheep, this concept manifests through Stan’s disillusionment with life and the implication “that Stan’s internal crisis is the result of external factors”. In the film, the character interaction between Stan, and Smoke and Scooter, who try to convince him to help kill someone from their neighbourhood, suggests that Stan’s life is indicative of a collective struggle that extends beyond the individual. When Smoke says “Look at Stan. What has he got? He worked all his life and what has he got? He don’t even have a decent pair of pants. All we’re trying to do is help…You can’t live if you’re afraid of dying” he is linking the scene to a context of class segregation in the post civil rights, post Watts protests social environment of Los Angeles, where economic prosperity is unrelated to hard work, and murder and violence are an openly discussed normality. This notion of films specific to the context of a social framework is what formed the aesthetic basis of Third Cinema, which centred narratives relevant to the social, political and economic environments of both audience and filmmaker.
Further representation of the impact of Neorealism and Third Cinema on Killer of Sheep lies in the aforementioned concept of narratives extending beyond the individual. Despite centralising black actors and communities through empowered plots where African Americans were the heroes of their own stories, LA Rebellion filmmakers recognised the limitations of Blaxploitation as a genre still indebted to Hollywood classism and the stylised glorification of class structures associated with it. This can be identified in the scene with Stan Jr witnessing the robbery of a television. A wardrobe of similar clothing and hairstyles worn by Stan Jr and one of the men is utilised to allow the audience to link the two characters. The connection implies that Stan Jr could be viewing his future self, as the poverty of the neighbourhood generates a normality of crime. The scene exposes how Burnett has used plot segments with various secondary characters to reflect the Neorealist aesthetic of importance placed upon historical, political and economic contexts of past and present. A collective narrative defies the solitary nature of American neo-capitalism and reflects Marxist politics in line with that of Third Cinema.
Third Cinema became a mechanism for seizing the means of cinema production and creating a dissenting voice for the oppressed within neocolonialist third world countries. There was a belief that democratised and accessible films by the masses, for the masses, could incite radical thought and revolution. Inspired by Third Cinema and Neorealism, the black realist films of the LA Rebellion, such as Killer of Sheep, provide an honest accessible representation of the reality of African American communities and in doing so, engender both a culture of criticism against systemic racism, economic exploitation and political oppression, and a means of escapism from it.