Saturday’s screening of Billy Woodberry’s Bless Their Little Hearts, couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time.
Set in the decaying urban centers of Los Angeles in the early 1980’s, the film is a rare glimpse into a working class black family that is heavily impacted by various economic hardships. If this sounds similar to our recent economic downturn and recession, it is.
The main character, Charlie, played by Nate Hardman, tries to combat these hardships by taking any odd job he can find- pulling weeds, painting over gang graffiti, and even selling fish on the side of the road, but he cannot secure a steady job to take care of his family. Be it institutions, racism, or his own inability, the film doesn’t place blame on any one thing, making it a sobering, human film, rather than a polarizing one. Shot in a minimal black and white film aesthetic by Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep), Woodberry often frames his characters in wide shots, amidst the settings they occupy and become trapped in. He also has a way of layering bodies within shots, especially in scenes where Charlie’s wife Andais lay asleep in the bed in the foreground of the frame and Charlie sits up smoking cigarettes in the background. These shots form a series of Charlie’s silent reflection of his unemployment and the ways it affects his wife and children.
Perhaps one of the greatest achievements of the film is its ability to capture so brilliantly urban Los Angeles in the early 1980’s, the black people that inhabited it, and the eroding structures it possessed. This is a Los Angeles that was rarely captured in this form. Though the film is a narrative work, the story, characters, and locations feel so lived in and embodied that it becomes larger than that. It becomes a subtle, yet charged commentary on economic turmoil, joblessness within urban communities, and the harrowing repercussions that they bear on families, and children especially. The children in this film come to inherent a world that they had no hand in creating. They learn painful lessons born out of the frustration of their unemployed father and overworked mother, lessons that may not have manifested if those specific economic conditions had not been present.
For all of its social resonance, the film also features one of the best argument scenes between a husband and wife that I’ve ever seen. Shot in one continuous take, Andais (played by Kaycee Moore of Killer of Sheep and Daughters of the Dust), funnels her frustration at Charlie’s unemployment and infidelity into several heart-wrenching monologues and quips that left me (and numerous audiences members) just as exhausted, and exhilarated as Charlie and Andais were when they finished. How Woodberry directed this scene remains one of my many filmmaker curiosities.
Bless Their Little Hearts is often seen as one of the culminating works of the LA Rebellion school of filmmakers from UCLA; Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep and Haile Gerima’s Child of Resistance, being some of the first. In this vein, the film represents so much of the movement’s evolving aesthetic and concerns in representing the humanity of black people against the backdrop of various institutional and economic pitfalls. Close observation of current Los Angeles terrain might prove that things have changed for the better, economically. Others (think Occupy LA) might strongly disagree. Bless Their Little Hearts allows us access into this conversation, building a cinematic bridge, and echoing into the unevenness of today’s economic landscape.
The LA Rebellion: Creating A New Black Cinema Screening series runs until December 17, 2011 at the UCLA Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, California. For more information, visit http://www.cinema.ucla.edu/