The Killing of America (1981) Review

The Killing of America (1981)
Directors: Leonard Schrader, Sheldon Renan
Plot: A documentary of the decline of America. It features a lot a great footage (most exclusive to this film) from race riots to serial killers and much-much more.

“America is the only industrialised nation with a higher murder rate than countries at civil war, like Cambodia and Nicaragua. An attempted murder every 3 minutes, a murder victim every 20 minutes. Japan, England and West Germany, with a combined population equal to America, have 6,000 murders a year. America has 27,000. In the 80 years of this century, America has had more than a million murders. More than all of her fatalities in all of her wars.”


Shocking and eye-opening, The Killing of America is a documentary that has taken too long to make it to our screens, not necessarily because of its quality as a story-telling device, nor necessarily for the political angle its filmmaker’s have presented, but more because of the truth of the story that makes this at once relevant to its intended early 80s release date audience and indeed our contemporary landscape. This movie may have been banned from release in 1981, but Chieko & Leonard Schrader’s documentary passion project has finally managed to find distribution and, like any good documentary, still successfully entices an audience and questions their moral values and principles all at once.

Opening with a juxtaposition of real-life footage of a man being shot to death by law enforcement and the flowing stars of the American flag, The Killing of America’s relevance is at once evident, and it proceeds to dump you right in at the deep end with an unapologetic sincerity that has you quaking in your boots from the outset and keeps you interested for most of its 90 minute run-time. The truly unapologetic and unrelenting nature of this movie is by far the picture’s most fascinating quality, though it may leave you a little shaken. Real-life footage is used throughout the entirety of the film, with a narrator guiding you through the countless clips of brutality and moments of sheer shock with a stern and telling voice that offers little remorse or consolation for the death you witness and the shocking behaviour you have outlined for you. This is because the true value of The Killing of America is in its factual depiction alongside its almost catalog-esque selection of clips that have to be considered to be of monumental value (at least in some sectors), such as: interviews with serial killers, the shootings of presidents, the mass murder of innocent civilians by riflemen.

Interestingly for a film mostly about gun crime, the documentary filmmakers are careful in ensuring that the picture doesn’t label any one particular sector of American society as those to blame for their problems. It would have been easy for the Schrader brothers and their director Sheldon Renan to blame the weapons industry for selling the weapons, or the authorities for their brutal opposition to a number of otherwise peaceful events, each of which has become more popular with similar documentaries in recent years, but the filmmakers refuse to offer such a specificity in their criticism because this documentary isn’t about police brutality, the accessibility of weapons or even the psychotic nature of the killers themselves; this movie is about the United States of America, as a whole, having a problem with violence. It’s not necessarily about why it has a problem, or how the country can fix it, but more about how they do have a problem and it’s becoming increasingly important to recognise it.

‘Americans now own more guns than the army. 100 million guns for only 60 million households.’

Initially, The Killing of America sets up the narrative that the American Dream and violence are wedded to one another and, given that the documentary focuses primarily on the 20th century, that the two were married when President Kennedy was shot in November of 1963. It’s an interesting proposition, but one that refuses to acknowledge less contemporary events (at least to its time of making), such as the two World Wars, the assassinations of earlier presidents, the country’s civil war, early 20th century gangsters and so on. It’s reductive because it favours the narrative that the filmmakers want you to process, which makes for an entertaining movie but inevitably reduces its argument’s legitimacy.

This isn’t the only problem with the documentary either, as the way the movie consists of stitched together news clips and private videos also proves to be a problem in how the picture can, at times, feel a little unfocused. Clips of serial killer interviews or authoritative gentlemen explaining the actions of a killing seem out of place, almost as if the filmmakers were so delighted to get their hands on the footage that they couldn’t deny its use. They make for interesting clips, but seem out of place in the grand scheme of the picture and not at one with the narrative of the documentary itself. Similarly, the conclusion of the film focuses on the murder of John Lennon and the mourning that followed. It seems as if the filmmakers intended the footage of the grieving fans to be indicative of a grief for the United States itself, even going so far as to end with the famous stars and stripes flowing in the wind to the sound of a famous Lennon song. The problem here is that Lennon wasn’t American, he was English. Their symbol for hope that the narrative of the movie deemed the final straw in America’s battle with itself wasn’t American and thus the final sequence was almost entirely unnecessary and poorly executed. This inevitably detracted from the overall reception of the film and its ideas, which was a shame considering the quality of the picture in other aspects.

Overall, The Killing of America is a watchable and even, perhaps, rewatchable documentary that drives home facts alongside its video’d proof with an almost unnerving conviction. The Schrader brothers may have had to wait 35 years for a legitimate release in the West, but their documentary stands the test of time and, disappointingly (to the filmmakers and lovers of peace at least), remains relevant to the contemporary landscape of the United States. It may get bogged down in almost irrelevant footage that detracts from the narrow narrative of the picture, but this film is one that will grab your attention and have you questioning yourselves and your society, just as every good documentary should.

“While you watched this movie, 5 more of us were murdered. 1 was the random killing of a stranger.”

Score: 15/24

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  • <cite class="fn">Katie Anna-Louise Doyle</cite>

    Despite irrelevant bits, this review has piqued my interest and I would definitely like to give this movie a watch (and I don’t even like movie documentaries)

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