Billy Woodberry’s 1984 feature Bless Their Little Hearts is a film more admired than seen and more’s the pity. To my knowledge, the film has never been issued either on VHS or DVD, but the exquisite 35mm blowup I saw last Saturday gives one hope that a DVD release is in the offing.
It won awards at the Berlin Film Festival when it debuted and was cited by no less than Thom Anderson in his epic documentary about my hometown’s portrayal in cinema Los Angeles Plays Itself. It is also somewhat cursed to be the little brother to Charles Burnett’s much-lauded masterwork Killer of Sheep.
There is good reason for this. Both films focus on embattled Black families in South Central Los Angeles in roughly the same time period. Both films are shot in black and white and bear the influence of both Italian Neo-Realism and so-called Third World Cinema. Burnett wrote the screenplay and shot the film in 16mm. But it was Woodberry, who was one of the younger members of the L.A. Rebellion or the “Los Angeles School of Black Filmmakers” (as it is called on Wikipedia) who produced, directed and edited Bless Their Little Hearts.
In discussing the film I’m afraid I cannot resist the temptation to further compare the two, but not to show how Woodberry’s film is lacking compared to Killer of Sheep, but instead to identify the unique strengths that Woodberry brought to bear in interpreting Burnett’s script.
The differences between the Banks family in Bless Their Little Hearts and Stan’s family in Killer of Sheep are critical. Where Stan’s job in a slaughterhouse is full of metaphorical import and takes a spiritual toll on him, Charlie Banks’ cross to bear is not having a job at all. His joblessness also is full of metaphorical import and takes a spiritual toll on him. In beautifully directed sequences we see Charlie struggle to both find work and keep his sense of manhood intact simultaneously, and all the while the ruins of industrial labor (shuttered and collapsing Firestone and Goodyear factories) become Charlie’s backdrop thanks to Woodberry’s mise-en-scene. The buildings speak eloquent volumes.
Aside from his Renoirian empathy, and his deft handling of subtle moments, Woodberry displays a great gift for directing actors. Nate Hardman does a fine job conveying Charlie’s anguish. It stays bottled up inside of him, and it comes out in bursts, either in small moments or in his disastrous flirtation with an old flame. Nate is more downtrodden than Stan in Killer of Sheep, who proudly enumerates the ways in which his family is still at least lower middle class. Charlie is slowly succumbing to the temptations surrounding him: the allure of easy money from crime, playing house in his largely chaste dalliance with an old girlfriend, and of course, the unspoken option to just leave everything.
Bless Their Little Hearts is a subtly bleaker vision than Killer of Sheep. Set only a few years after the earlier film, it is clear the ravages that will afflict the Black community as the 1980’s continue are more advanced as evidenced by the gang graffiti Charlie at one point paints over. Where the earlier film devoted much time to images of children frolicking in their less than idyllic setting, those images are absent here. Moreover, we see the aftermath of an off-screen incident late in the film that suggests those same streets have become dangerous for children.
As the title suggests, Bless Their Little Hearts is hugely concerned with how the economic strife and the attendant marital turmoil affects those children. Charlie and his wife Andais (played by the incomparable Kaycee Moore, more on her in a bit), try to shield their children from the dark side of their marriage, but the children nevertheless pick up on signs obvious and subtle that all is not right.
Charlie is a complex character, at once the victim of his circumstance but undeniably his own antagonist. His impotence, poor choices and boundless self-pity make us incredibly sympathetic to his wife. The truth captured in how this paterfamilias is simultaneously important to and part of the family’s woes is searing. We also witness time and again how self-pity and dishonesty reduce Charlie (more even than his joblessness) to being one more child Andais has to care for.
When Charlie and Andais finally have it out in a bravura handheld long take scene that is difficult to watch for all of its emotional intensity, it finally dawned on me that this film is a distant cousin to Bergman’s Scenes From A Marriage. Woodberry’s film is more like Bergman’s than Killer of Sheep in that Bless Their Little Hearts is largely a chamber piece, one in which each member of the family plays an important part in the ensemble. The slow burn, buildup and conflagration between Johan and Marianne could almost be thought of as cultural stereotyping of the famously saturnine Swedes. But it is not something we are given to associating with African-American characters. But Charlie and Andais, beset by day-to-day struggles have also become pressure cookers. The details (cultural and class-wise) in each respective fictional marriage may differ, but human truth is universal.
Kaycee Moore also played Stan’s unnamed wife in Killer of Sheep. And she has a crucial part in Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, thereby making her one of the great leading ladies of the L.A. Rebellion. It is stating the obvious that Kaycee Moore, in a more just world, would have been a major star and famous. She has a power in her performances that does not come at the expense of her character’s humanity or complexity. She is more sympathetic here than in Burnett’s film. The scene of her talking to her daughter about the nature of courtship is priceless. It’s simple yet gives the character a great deal of shading.
Those moments in the end are really where Woodberry’s directing shines (belated full disclosure: as a UCLA student, Woodberry was one of my most important mentors). His film is less a portrait of a community than a look at how one family can serve as a microcosm.
I can’t give anything away about the final image, but it stays in your mind after you’ve seen the film. It doesn’t allow us to have any false hope about the future of the Banks family, and it is unclear how deeply the act merely reflects Charlie’s exasperation with the present or his family’s long-range prospects.
It is common to think of the L.A. Rebellion directors as unsung heroes, especially Woodberry who has not received the accolades some of his comrades have. So it is very telling that he devoted so much of his Q&A after the film to recognizing the unsung amongst the unsung: the critics and academics who he believed created an environment at international festivals that was receptive to his work and the other Rebellion directors.
This is important. Without people like the late Albert Johnson (5/9/1925 – 10/17/1998; an African American Studies professor at UC Berkeley who co-founded the San Francisco International Film Festival & and the journal Film Quarterly) who quietly advocated for the filmmakers all over the world, movements like the L.A. Rebellion may happen but they won’t achieve critical mass.
The enormous generosity Woodberry demonstrates as a director also motivates him to remind us not to buy into the Great Auteur approach to understanding the movement he participated in. When decrying the state of things in cinema, let’s remember that it took many people to create the L.A. Rebellion. And not all of them were behind or anywhere near the camera.