Tag Archives: Touki Bouki

Black Directors Feature #5 – Killer of Sheep (1978)

KILLER OF SHEEP (1977)Killer of Sheep (1978)
Directed by: Charles Burnett
Written by: Charles Burnett
Starring: Henry G. Sangers, Kaycee Moore, Charles Bracy, Angela Burnett, Eugene Cherry, Jack Drummond

Charles Burnett is widely known as perhaps one of the most under-appreciated and underrated film directors in modern American history, largely due to his work on 1978’s Killer of Sheep.  Burnett wrote the film during his time at UCLA, and quickly went to work on making his screenplay a reality.  Casting friends, family members, and colleagues in the film, Burnett completed Killer of Sheep and spent less than $10,000 in the process.  He opted for a documentary-like style throughout the film, with the camera servicing almost as a fly on the wall for the moments caught on scree.  Burnett’s style is highly reminiscent of films made during the period of Italian neorealism in the 1940’s and early 50’s, a movement that created critically acclaimed classics like Bicycle Thieves, Rome Open City, Nights of Cabiria, Stromboli, and Umberto D.  Though Killer of Sheep is regarded as a triumph today, the film had an incredibly tough time playing to audiences of the time.  Its low budget nature and low quality prints made it hard to screen to mass audiences, and the film’s use of licensed music created legal complications for a wide release.  After fading into relative obscurity for a number of years, Killer of Sheep was restored and remastered and given a theatrical and home video release in 2007 – nearly thirty years after its completion.  Charles Burnett would get the opportunity to work with higher budgets in the 1990’s, directing the acclaimed To Sleep with Anger and later The Glass Shield. Despite having all of the acclaim and talent in the world working on his side, Burnett has opted to make a career out of documentary film-making and various made for television movies, including one for the Disney Channel titled Nightjohn, and an ABC film called Selma, Lord, Selma.  Despite never quite making it into the history books as an all-time great filmmaker with a catalog of revered classics, Charles Burnett has managed to stay relevant and on the cutting edge of his industry in whatever field he chooses to work in.  His influence on independent film-making and black films is undeniable, and the craft and skill he puts into his work is to be greatly admired.  All-time great or not, Burnett will be forever remembered for groundbreaking films like Killer of Sheep, and for carving out his own path in the film industry, and constantly (and admirably) doing it the way he wants to do it.

KILLER OF SHEEP (1977)

Stan (Henry G. Sanders) in 1978’s Killer of Sheep.

Killer of Sheep takes a documentary-like approach to the lives of a black family in the Watts district of 1970’s Los Angeles.  As such, there isn’t much of a coherent narrative to summarize.  Instead of a flowing act-to-act style story, the film observes their real, mundane lives and makes it something to truly behold.  We see Stan (Henry G. Sanders), a father who spends his time working at a slaughterhouse in the area.  It’s implied that the constant slaughtering of these animals is having a subtle effect on his family life, as we see through Stan’s interactions with his wife, son, and daughter.  Stan’s life is dull, grey, and monotonous, and it causes him to ignore the need for affection that his family yearns for.  The story is told through a number of events, none of them following any sort of strict timeline.  We see Stan nearly become embroiled in some nefarious criminal activities, be offered a job working in a shop owned by a white woman, and his attempts to purchase and transport the engine of a car.  What we really see though, is a disillusioned man struggling with existential ideas that are much bigger than himself.  He feels powerless in changing the course of his own life, probably feels trapped in the beautiful and loving family he has crafted for himself, and completely jaded with the life he is currently living.  Killer of Sheep is an experimental film that is nearly impossible to summarize in a coherent manner. It’s a film that needs to be seen in order to be fully comprehended.

Sometimes all you need when analyzing and trying to make up your mind about an experience like this is perspective.  After taking in all of Killer of Sheep and enjoying it – but not quite understanding it – I took to the internet and read some pieces on the film.  When I came across several references towards Killer of Sheep being heavily inspired by the works of Italian neorealists of the 40’s, everything suddenly clicked for me.  The story here is completely secondary to everything that Burnett is trying to get across with his film.  This isn’t a preachy, cliche-ridden drama like so many black films before and after it had been, but instead an unflinching look at the everyday lives of a family, in particular its patriarch.  It’s fitting that I watched Killer of Sheep and Touki Bouki in the same evening for my first viewing of both films, as they both take a very similar approach stylistically and thematically.  Both films are about people who are unsatisfied with their surroundings yearning for something far more grand, but never knowing quite what they want.  The same disconnected, fly-on-the-wall, almost documentary-like style is employed in both films, making both works feel far more powerful in the delivery of their messages.  The absence of a coherent narrative often throws me off for films like this, but Stan is an incredibly interesting lead character, and I found myself really compelled and wanting to know what he was going to get into next.  Director Charles Burnett shows some truly incredible talent in Killer of Sheep, often making neighborhoods in Watts resemble war-torn suburbs, further stressing the disillusionment and sense of un-fulfillment that Stan is feeling.  Everywhere the camera goes something interesting is happening, whether it’s in the background or front and center.  My favorite scene in the film is a very small, beautiful moment that sees Stan’s wife working in the kitchen while his young daughter sings along to the radio in the next room over.  The scene is incredibly simple and in no way technically impressive, but it managed to really touch me in a way I can’t quite describe.  Stan’s family is very lovely despite everything they’re up against, and yet our lead character can’t see just how much he’s taking them all for granted.  Instead, Stan is focused on fixing his car and setting his sights on escaping in whatever mental or physical way he possibly can.

KILLER OF SHEEP (1977)

Stan’s daughter (Angela Burnett) and a young neighborhood boy in Charles Burnett’s incredible Killer of Sheep.

While it may not be an action thrill ride, nor is it the most beautiful and stylistic film you’ll ever see, Killer of Sheep is an incredible piece of art from a filmmaker who has all the talent in the world.  The existential themes of longing for more, escape, and disillusionment are something that many of you can relate with.  It’s a film that resonates with you long after you see it, and one you may not be able to fully appreciate after just one watch.  It’s thematically rich, with an incredible script and a compelling lead character.  It may not be for everybody reading this, but I’m so glad to finally be able to say that I’ve seen Charles Burnett’s incredible debut.  Killer of Sheep is highly recommended.

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Black Directors Feature #3 – Touki Bouki (1973)

Touki_Bouki_coverTouki Bouki (1973)
Directed by: Djibril Diop Mambéty
Written by: Djibril Diop Mambéty
Starring: Magaye Niang, Aminata Fall, Ousseynou Diop, Mareme Niang

The next two films in our marathon will very much contrast from our first two American journeys into early blaxploitation.  Instead of the gritty streets of New York City, with undercover police officers, pimps, and drug pushers, we move to the French and Wolof-speaking country of the Republic of Senegal.  Our themes with both Touki Bouki and Xala (the next film in our marathon) are much more political in tone, and the films less action-packed and in-your-face, but just as stylistic and game-changing in their own right.  Our first look at Senegalese cinema comes with Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Touki Bouki, released in 1973.  Though Mambéty may not have been as prolific or even as acclaimed as his contemporary Ousmane Sembene, the influence of Touki Bouki on other black cinema and even Senegalese cinema in general in undeniable, and the film has found a great deal of appreciate in the United States and the rest of the world.  Director Martin Scorsese and his World Cinema Foundation restored the film to its former glory back in 2007, and it has since found its way into the Criterion Collection, a rare feat for a Senegalese (or African in general) film.  The Foundation’s aim is to restore films from areas of the world where cinema has been neglected, in order to raise awareness, appreciation, and understanding for these under-seen masterworks from around the world.  Films from Russia, Mexico, Hong Kong, Brazil, Romania, Turkey, and the Philippines joins Senegal’s Touki Bouki in having the honor of being restored and re-purposed by a loving group of artists at the top of their industry, and thank goodness for them.  Mambéty’s Touki Bouki was initially screened at the prestigious Cannes film festival in 1973, and won the festival’s International Critics Prize from the FIPRESCI (Fédération Internationale de la Presse Cinématographique).  On top of being celebrated upon its original release, the film has gone on to become labeled as something of a lost classic.  Director Djibril Diop Mambéty would go on to make a number of films in his home country, but unfortunately would never go on to see the level of success that he saw with the release of Touki Bouki.  He passed away in 1998 at the far too young age of 53, and his films would be mostly ignored by the general public until the World Cinema Foundation stepped in and helped Touki Bouki once again find an international audience.

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Magaye Niang as Mory in Djibril Diop Mambety’s classic Touki Bouki.

Touki Bouki’s story is told in an almost dream-like, not quite linear way. While there is absolutely an overarching story-line throughout the film, the story isn’t exactly the best thing about the film.  Throughout the film, we see Mory (Magaye Niang) and Anta (Mareme Niang) as they meet and talk about ways they can escape to Paris together.  Mory works as a cowherd, and drives a motorcycle with a horned skull proudly displayed between its handlebars.  Both Mory and Anta have been alienated by their lives in Senegal, and no reason but to abandon their responsibilities in their home country and make a break for a relaxed life across the ocean.  With their plans set, both idealistic young people start looking for ways to make money for their voyage.  Eventually, Mory plots to steal the money from a wealthy gay man, and the two young Senegalese idealists are one step closer to freedom.  Unfortunately for both of them, leaving the country proves to be more difficult than expected, both on a physical and mental level.  Will young Mory and Anta throw caution to the wind in order to start new lives abroad, or will the familiarity and comfort of their lives at home in Senegal prove to be too much to leave?  Find out in Djibril Diop Mambéty’s 1973 classic, Touki Bouki.

As a young film-goer growing up in an incredible period of time for our access to media of all nations, ages, and content, I’m incredibly thankful to have people like Martin Scorsese and company at the World Cinema Foundation.  The fact that Touki Bouki has seen moderate success in North America decades after its disappearance is incredibly comforting to me, and I hope that organizations such as the WCF will learn from it in the future.  Though Touki Bouki may not be the greatest film I’ve ever seen, nor can I relate with it on more than a base human level, I’m incredibly happy to have seen it.  The film is a beautiful display of the idealistic nature of young people worldwide, and an interesting look at loneliness and a yearning for more.  It features bright and vivid cinematography, and shows off the work of a director who I wish (for slightly selfish reasons) had become more successful throughout his short career.  It may be deliberately paced and something of a drag in its lingering moments, but it more than makes up for it with its odd set-pieces of Mory and Anta driving by motorcycle (and later a very nice car) through the city and countryside, and the nature of its contrasting themes of young life, death, and the desire to take part in something bigger and better.  We see animals people slaughtered by villagers contrasted with the dull everyday city life of young Mory, and while it may be visceral and disturbing at times, it’s undoubtedly compelling and interesting.  The film’s soundtrack is very effective in its sparing use, and the repetition of Josephine Baker’s classic “Paris…Paris” repeated over and over throughout the runtime is both joyful and welcoming, while also being frustrating and grating on the viewer.  It’s clear that the director took a great deal of influence from the French New Wave movement in 1960’s France, and he does his best to make the frantic style his own through the film’s more daring moments.  It’s difficult to write about Touki Bouki on more than a surface level, because the nature of Mambéty’s film is so incredibly personal.  I can’t say I’m an expert on Senegal’s political scene in the 1970’s, nor can I completely relate to the wants and needs of young Senegalese people of the time, but I still managed to get a lot of the film’s central idea and the plot which conveys those ideas.  You can feel the frustration and longing for more throughout the whole film, which is something that most everybody can relate to.

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Mory (Magaye Niang) and Anta (Mareme Niang) riding the famous bull skull motorcycle in 1973’s Touki Bouki.

Touki Bouki is a joyous and incredibly fun example of just how exciting and different world cinema can be.  I’m incredibly thankful for those who saw worth in the movie’s messages and the way in which is gets them across to the viewer, and I hope young people everywhere discover it and appreciate it in their own way.  It’s a beautiful film both literally and thematically, uses subtle, but effective, comedy to push the idealistic story forward, and has a lot to say about both loneliness and the struggles that young people across the world face when trying to find themselves.  It’s bright and colorful, has a fun and catchy (if repetitive) soundtrack, and can be related with on a basic level whether you’re 15 or 75.  Touki Bouki is a film I’m incredibly glad to have seen, and one that I hope finds more and more success as historians analyse and re-appropriate its significance.  Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Touki Bouki is recommended for all.

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February Theme – Black Directors (An Introduction)

spike-lee-reaches
With February being Black History Month, I’ve decided to go with something of a broad theme to celebrate.  Our theme for this month will cover nine great and/or highly influential films made by black filmmakers, spanning the blaxploitation boom in the 1970’s to the black independent movement of the 1990’s.  I’ve decided not to cover modern day black filmmakers, as I will more than likely revisit the theme in upcoming monthly marathons.

The directors being covered this coming month all made a giant splash in their industry, whether it be the early independent scene in America, the glitz and glamour of Hollywood filmmaking, or the African filmmaking scene in the French-speaking country of Senegal.  The films covered explore themes of racial tension, economic and social struggles faced by the black community through modern history, and create iconic characters whose influence is still being felt today.

Filmmakers being covered include:

  • Senegalese legend Ousmane Sembene, who is considered to be the father of African film.  His career spanned spanned five decades, creating some of the greatest African movies ever made.
  • Gordon Parks, one of the first major African American filmmakers to find success in Hollywood.  He pioneered the “blaxploitation” genre with the Shaft series of films.  His son Gordon Parks Jr., killed tragically at the age of 44, will also be covered.
  • One of America’s most underrated black filmmakers, Charles Burnett.  Burnett’s film Killer of Sheep took decades to be released on a wide scale because of music rights issues.  His influence on black filmmakers is undeniable.
  • The controversial auteur Spike Lee, who broke into the scene in the 1980’s with groundbreaking films like She’s Gotta Have It and Do the Right Thing.  Lee’s 1992 film Malcolm X found mainstream critical and commercial success, and propelled Lee to become arguably the most successful African American director in history.
  • The 1990’s saw a sudden spike in original, stylistic, and highly influential African American films like John Singleton’s Oscar-nominated Boyz n the Hood, the Hughes Brothers’ independent hit Menace II Society, and F. Gary Gray’s stoner comedy Friday.

The schedule for February’s Black Directors Marathon is as follows:

#1 – Shaft (1971) (Gordon Parks) (Feb. 2)
#2 – Super Fly (1972) (Gordon Parks Jr.) (Feb. 5)
#3 – Touki Bouki (1973) (Djibril Diop Mambéty) (Feb. 8)
#4 – Xala (1975) (Ousmane Sembene) (Feb. 12)
#5 – Killer of Sheep (1978) (Charles Burnett) (Feb. 15)
#6 – Boyz n the Hood (1991) (John Singleton) (Feb. 19)
#7 – Malcolm X (1992) (Spike Lee) (Feb. 22)
#8 – Menace II Society (1993) (Albert & Allen Hughes) (Feb. 26)
#9 – Friday (1995) (F. Gary Gray) (Feb. 29)

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