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The Los Angeles ghetto of Watts in the mid-1970s is seen through the eyes of Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), a sensitive dreamer growing detached and numb from the psychic toll of working at a slaughterhouse. Frustrated by money problems, he finds respite in moments of simple beauty: the warmth of a coffee cup against his cheek, slow dancing with his wife (Kaycee Moore) to the radio, holding his daughter. Writer/director Charles Burnett offers no solutions, but merely presents the reality of African-American life—sometimes hauntingly bleak, sometimes filled with transcendent joy and humor. Combining lyrical elements with a neorealist documentary style, the family portrait he paints is deeply compassionate.

  Killer of Sheep

I would like to know why some of the most talented filmmakers are not working—and that includes camera, sound and wardrobe people. At workshops and in casting sessions I have seen people who are incredible actors impress the heck out of me. You ask a dumb question you unconsciously know the answer to: “Why don’t we see more of you?” The obvious answer is that they don’t get a chance and studios don’t create scripts that showcase their talent. I’m talking about actors who went to drama schools and have years of stage experience. They are all competing for the same three lines of dialog. Does the fact that they are people of color have anything to do with the fact that they don’t work?

I have been asked a number of times, “Is Hollywood racist?” I fear that the people who pose that question are in denial. I hate when people counter by saying, “If Hollywood is the problem, make your own films, create your own studio and distribution system.” Anyone who knows this business knows that is not the answer. It takes resources and connections and a lot of money. You need cooperation from all around. Making a film is one of many hurdles, which keep getting higher as you trod up and down the road that leads to having your film screened theatrically and realizing a profit. We run the risk of reverting to separate but equal or an apartheid situation like we are in now. Great stories add to our understanding of life. Great stories enhance our shared history. In spite of those who say, “I don’t see race and I don’t see color,” which is a remarkable statement, it is clear that they do.

Hollywood is perceived as being liberal. However, when you look closely at its ratio of whites to people of color, it is far from being liberal in any sense of word. The sad part is that everyone loses. Another voice is silenced, as is the possibility of recognizing a common humanity. Hollywood has been guilty in the past of perpetuating negative images of people of color and perhaps is still engaged in the process. There have been a number of debates throughout the black community about the ongoing fixation of producers in Hollywood on the negative, as if nothing exists but drug dealers, pimps, cheaters and you-name-it. Actors constantly tell stories about going for a part that calls for the actor to act as if he is trying out for a part in a minstrel show. They refused to do it and therefore don’t work. There are a few well-intentioned films that do emerge at times. Ask blacks over 40 why they stopped going to the movies. As Fannie Lou Hamer might say in this case, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”