As I was taking in Charles Burnett's careful observations in Killer of Sheep, I thought, "This could be the first, and only, neo-realist inspired Black American film ever made...". Upon further thinking, I realized that it may be the only American made film - period - in the neo-realist tradition. (I still can't think of another to compare. Cassavettes' stuff comes close in style, but his films are too upper-class oriented, and sex obsessed, to be classically "neo-realist".)
This makes sense. Charles Burnett was a student at UCLA film school when he made Killer of Sheep. No doubt, that during the American critical awakening of the 1970's, films such as The Bicycle Thief, Umberto D, and Germany Year Zero were discussed and screened frame-by-frame in university film classes. Burnett's movie was made for $10,000 and on the DVDs commentary track he says "I made this thinking of no audience, that nobody outside of class would see it". That inherit limitation paid off, because Killer of Sheep is a raw, yet hopeful, look at lower-class, black, America, circa 1972.
Killer of Sheep's portrayal of a poor, black, Los Angeles neighborhood is refreshing. Yes, it was a different time, and as Burnett acknowledges, a safer time, but it's a portrayal we rarely see in the films of Spike Lee, John Singleton, or The Hughes Brothers. Those filmmakers pour on the white guilt, and in doing so, end up eschewing the lives and struggles of their characters.
In Killer of Sheep's best moment, Stan responds to a friends guffawing at his middle-class aspirations: "Man, I'm not poor... hell, we give away things to the Salvation Army! You don't do that if you're poor. Hmph...sometimes it may seem like we don't got a damn thing.... but poor?!?! Nah, I ain't poor." Such wisdom and sensitivity from a, then, college student. It exposes how much of a huckster Spike Lee can sometimes be, and how his bitter movies are nothing more than a disservice to the black community.