#493) Bless Their Little Hearts (1983)

#493) Bless Their Little Hearts (1983)

OR “Saving Mr. Banks”

Directed by Billy Woodberry

Written by Charles Burnett

Class of 2013 

The Plot: “Bless Their Little Hearts” chronicles Charlie Banks (Nate Hardman) and his wife Andais (Kaycee Moore) as they struggle to raise a family and make ends meet in Watts, Los Angeles. The chronically unemployed Charlie tries to find day labor, while Andais manages to work while raising their three kids (Angela, Ronald, and Kimberly Burnett). The daily frustrations of the Banks’ life reaches a boiling point in this representation of an under appreciated group of influential filmmakers.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film a “spare, emotionally resonant portrait of family life during times of struggle” and calls Woodberry “a key figure” in the L.A. Rebellion movement of the late ’70s/early ’80s. The NFR blurb also quotes Jim Ridley’s review from the “Village Voice”: “Its poetry lies in the exaltation of ordinary detail”.

But Does It Really?: “Bless Their Little Hearts” holds up remarkably well, and while not an essential American film, represents an important generation of African-American filmmakers on a mission to tell their stories as honestly as possible. “Bless” can be a bit difficult to track down (Thanks, Criterion Channel!), but thanks to the dedicated vision of Billy Woodberry and Charles Burnett, it is well worth seeking out.

Everybody Gets One: While studying at UCLA, Billy Woodberry became part of the L.A. Rebellion, a film movement consisting of such notable African-American filmmakers as Woodberry, Charles Burnett, and Julie Dash. These filmmakers were influenced by the turbulent politics of 1960s America, and sought to make films that more accurately portrayed the struggles of African-Americans. Burnett strongly encouraged Woodberry to become a film director, and offered him his screenplay for “Bless”. Burnett even went as far as connecting Woodberry with cast members from his previous film “Killer of Sheep”, including this film’s leading lady Kaycee Moore.

Wow, That’s Dated: Besides the kids using knobs to change the TV channel, this movie is not very dated. This, of course, means that the film’s dissection of socio-economic hardships for people of color hasn’t aged either.

Seriously, Oscars?: No Oscar love for “Bless Their Little Hearts” or Billy Woodberry. The film did, however, take home some prizes from the Berlin and Amiens International Film Festivals.

Other notes

  • “Bless Their Little Hearts” was Woodberry’s master thesis at UCLA, a fact that a surprisingly large number of NFR entries have in common. This always begs the question: What grade did Woodberry get on this? Anything short of an A- and I will need to speak to his professor.
  • Many of the L.A. Movement filmmakers helped each other make their movies at UCLA. Here, Charles Burnett is both screenwriter and cameraman. On the flip side, Woodberry acted in 1982’s “Ashes and Embers” by Haile Gerima.
  • Though never mentioned by any of the characters, “Bless Their Little Hearts” is set and filmed in the Watts neighborhood in Los Angeles. Charles Burnett grew up in Watts, and this (as well as his directorial debut “Killer of Sheep”) is set in Watts. Did he ever cross paths with the kids from “Felicia“?
  • One thing “Bless” does really well is capture the sort of meaningless meandering that life seems to consist of when one has no real prospects on the horizon. On the surface, this is a movie where “nothing happens”, but Woodberry is setting his scenes very carefully for Charlie’s inevitable breakdown. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, these early scenes would be quite boring, but Woodberry manages to hold your interest.
  • The $125 Charlie makes every week is about $320 today. This has been an episode of “We Suck at Inflation”, as well as an episode of “We Suck at Financially Supporting our Working Class Citizens”.
  • Like many a great filmmaker, Woodberry knows the power of the close-up. Andais’ breakdown scene is played out in a wide shot of her and the kids, saving the crucial close-up for the exact moment when she snaps. It’s riveting.
  • Equally riveting is the major argument between Charlie and Andais, covered in one uninterrupted take. It’s a testament to Woodberry’s direction, Nate Hardman and Kaycee Moore’s committed performances, and Charles Burnett’s cinematography.
  • Another brilliant piece of camerawork from Woodberry and Burnett: After their argument, Charlie and Andais are only shown in separate close-ups when they share a scene. They do not occupy the same shot until they reconcile.
  • “Bless Their Little Hearts” was restored in 2017 by UCLA. Billy Woodberry took the opportunity to credit some cast and crew members who went uncredited for their work in the original print. There is also a special thanks section that acknowledges, among others, Julie Dash and Edward Olmos.

Legacy 

  • Although Billy Woodberry’s film career never rose to the same heights as his contemporaries Charles Burnett and Julie Dash, he is still making movies; his most recent being 2015’s “And when I die, I won’t stay dead”, a documentary about poet and activist Bob Kaufman. Woodberry has also narrated films from fellow NFR directors Thom Andersen (“Red Hollywood”) and James Benning (“Four Corners”).
  • In addition to his film work, Billy Woodberry has been teaching film at CalArts since 1989.
  • Charles Burnett has also continued directing. In addition to the aforementioned “Killer of Sheep”, Burnett would go on to helm another NFR entry: 1990’s “To Sleep with Anger”.

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