Sunday, September 24, 2017

Bless Their Little Hearts

Charles Burnett

Billy Woodberry

BLESS THEIR LITTLE HEARTS                B+                  
USA  (80 mi)  1983  director:  Billy Woodberry  writer and cinematographer:  Charles Burnett

By the turn of the next century, film historians will recognize that a decisive turning point in the development of Black cinema took place at UCLA.  By then, persuasive definitions of Black Cinema will revolve around images encoded not by Hollywood, but within the self-understanding of the African-American population.
—Clyde Taylor, film scholar and cultural critic who coined the phrase “L.A. Rebellion,” 1986

One of the strengths of cinema is the power of observation, taking audiences into worlds they would otherwise never see, generously allowing viewers to size up a situation often without any words being spoken, where it’s all about what’s real, what stands out, and what we can take from any given scene, where in this film we become fascinated by the curious eyes of children, where brief looks and short glances say it all, as they are literally engulfed in the adult world around them, watching and learning, where it seems like nothing gets by them.  Prominently featured in Thomas Andersen’s splendid documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), that film identified black independent filmmakers like Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1979) and Billy Woodberry’s BLESS THEIR LITTLE HEARTS (1984), both of which focus on working-class black families living in South Central Los Angeles living from paycheck to paycheck, which come across as near documentary truth without an ounce of artifice about life or the black experience, offering a mirror image of August Wilson’s poetic revelations about growing up on the streets of Pittsburgh, filmed about the same time he was writing his 1985 play Fences (2016).  These two films happen to be connected, as Burnett wrote the script and provided the camerawork in Woodberry’s film, while the children onscreen are Burnett’s daughter Angela along with nieces and nephews.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, both films were selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry, Burnett’s in 1990, while Woodberry’s film was added in 2013.  Both were key figures in the L.A. Rebellion, black and brown UCLA film students from the 70’s that brought a different perspective, committed to creating authentic cinematic depictions of black peoples and experiences, creating a new aesthetic to American independent films, following the Civil Rights movement and having witnessed the 1965 Watts riots, which included the burning down of their neighborhoods, with both of these films revealing empty lots where children play that were once homes or businesses, yet a decade or so later nothing has been rebuilt, instead vacant space has become part of the existing urban landscape.  Burnett and Woodberry were in school together, along with an influx of other minority students, with this being Woodberry’s graduation film, where part of their focus was redefining the black image in American films, as the lives of blacks were all but absent in Hollywood films, or stereotyped beyond recognition, so these films corrected the strange narratives in the Hollywood tradition regarding a false and inaccurate depiction of black life.  The L.A. Rebellion came immediately after the Blaxploitation period, exaggerating the world of guns and gangsters or mythical heroes, yet continuing to associate blacks with criminality.  In Woodberry and Burnett’s films, criminality exists, but on the periphery, where the main characters turn their backs to it and refuse to rob or cheat people to make a buck, instead they’re continually seen searching (or perhaps meandering) for a righteous path, but not always finding it.   

Featuring the uncredited blues music of Little Esther Phillips and jazz saxophonist Archie Shepp, it resembles the cool jazz of the 50’s, which was particularly West coast oriented, as the Southern California lifestyle is more laid back and sunny, even in Watts, a mostly black, segregated neighborhood about seven miles from downtown Los Angeles, which includes many who migrated post WW II from the American South.  Shot in a neo-realist Italian style, raw and unpolished, like the late 40’s work of Roberto Rossellini, where the focus of his films was exposing the underlying conditions of poverty, set amongst the working class poor, using non-professional actors to convey the harsh realities of everyday life, contending with often brutal economic and moral conditions.  Similarly, here work is scarce, as there are few jobs in the neighborhood, where part of the segregated racial isolation means schools, hospitals, and industry have moved elsewhere, where most have to travel significant distance just to look for what’s available, where much of their world is portrayed as a broken down, industrial wasteland.  Enter Charlie Banks (Nate Hardman), cigarette dangling from his mouth, who is seen filling out applications (in pencil!) at a neighborhood job center, writing down names and numbers of possible prospects, where it’s clear this is a frustrating way of seeking employment, as nothing moves quickly, instead you’re always waiting for someone to call your name and contact you, but that waiting grows increasingly tiresome, as the frustration feels endless, where this film shows how humiliating it becomes, eventually taking a toll on his family, as there’s a ripple effect of continuing hopelessness.  While we watch him cut weeds and tall grass with a scythe under the hot sun and stack it into a pile, he also paints the walls of a graffiti-laden storage bin for daily pay, returning home with a special gift for his three kids, three-favored ice-cream, where each can have their own favorite flavor.  Of course it’s amusing to see Burnett’s daughter Angela as the oldest immediately assume the role of mother and tell the other kids no one gets to eat anything until the kitchen table is all cleaned up.  This mimicking of adult behavior is a charming aspect of the film, as these kids spend a lot of time inside the congested four walls of the room, where constantly rubbing elbows can grow testy, as they taunt and tease one another.  His wife Andais (Kaycee Moore, also in Killer of Sheep) is exhausted from working a job and continually looking after the children, making them help in the preparation of meals or doing the chores, while also making sure they do their homework.  By the time Charlie gets back home, they’re often in bed already, leaving him awake at night contemplating his continual frustrations.  With no money in his pocket, there’s a telling scene when the kids get dressed for Church, with Andais in the hallway taking change from her purse and giving it to Charlie to give to the children, sparing him the humiliation of having nothing to give them.  This offers the appearance of being involved, while the truth is otherwise, especially when he runs into an old flame down the street, a woman he begins hanging around for comfort. 

Andais is not easily fooled, especially when it comes to paying the bills, as some of the money he supposedly earned comes up missing, with Charlie offering a lame excuse to cover his butt, a diversionary technique used since the dawn of time, but Andais is having none of it, as it’s affecting the rest of the family, so his little misdirection plot misfires, only aggravating things further, as she needs some regular income from her husband that just never seems to come, instead it’s a day here or there, but nothing regular.  This kitchen scene explodes into genuine anger and indignation, as Andais has put up with his two-timing with a hussy down the street, which she hears about from everyone on the block, which is demeaning enough, working like a dog and then hearing people laugh at her situation, where even the kids are asking about it, but she can’t take the fact money is disappearing into someone else’s pocket, as her children need things she can’t afford all on her own.  For him to be so useless at this stage in his life, it’s as if he’s never really grown up and learned to face his responsibilities.  While he pleads that he’s doing the best that he can, claiming everyday he’s trying, she angrily reacts, “Don’t try, do it, do it!”  Exasperated beyond belief, she breaks down in a soul-crushing chorus of “I’m tired, tired, tired…Start trying to be a man.”  And herein lies the heart of the film, pointing out how joblessness leads not only to a road to oblivion but to a condition of emasculation, as men learn how to evade or con their way through life rather than accept responsibilities.  In impoverished, segregated neighborhoods, jobs are hard to come by, so this emasculation becomes a stigmatized social condition where you give up, becoming resigned to your fate.  While not talked about much in Hollywood portrayals, where blacks are usually oversexed and overly aggressive, this inner resignation works its way into the gut of a man, leading to a kind of hopeless paralysis, where he has to literally re-learn what he’s supposed to do, as men in similar circumstances are on every street corner, each one lying and bluffing their way through, but they only end up conning themselves.  With so few role models, Charlie has few options to turn to for advice, seeking out the neighborhood barber, asking how a man is supposed to find work when there’s none around.  It’s an understated scene, one with no easy answers, with the usual advice that you have to get up earlier than the next guy and literally beat him to whatever job is available, claiming there is no other choice.  He adds that there’s plenty of guys that can pull that off for awhile, but they can’t seem to do it on a regular basis.  With that brief aside, the film ends with a self-imposed ambiguity, where Charlie has to turn his back on a couple of swindlers, literally walking “away” from them, but where he’s heading is a complete unknown.     

Preceded by a 13-minute short, THE POCKETBOOK (1980), which was also shot by Charles Burnett and two other UCLA students, the film is based upon a short story by Langston Hughes entitled Thank You, Ma'am (by Langston Hughes) 3-page short story, 1958 (pdf), adapted and directed by Woodberry, given plenty of flexibility, particularly in the improvisational opening, which resembles the playfulness of Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1979), showing children at play in abandoned industrial zones, hopping on trains, or walking on rails, fleeting images that inspired the early indie work of David Gordon Green in George Washington (2000).  Using a Leadbelly blues song as a continual refrain, this wordless opening introduces us to one kid, initially seen among a group of five, but later this anonymous youth (Ray Cherry) takes it upon himself to try to snatch the purse of an older woman (Ella “Simi” Nelson), who instead catches him by the arm and pulls him all the way into her apartment.  Giving him the business for making the wrong choice, as she hasn’t much to spare, she’s a stern but sympathetic woman who immediately cooks him up a meal, even offers him a few bucks before he leaves, showing him some grandmother kindness, talking to him as if he was a member of her own family, taking great care to make sure her message sinks in.  Many of the night-time street scenes are reminiscent of Kent MacKenzie’s The Exiles (1961), particularly the illuminated store windows on the sidewalk and headlights from the passing street traffic, with additional music by Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis, where the final musical choice is pitch perfect, a final glimpse of this young man released out into the world with just the opening few bars from My Funny Valentine - Miles Davis [1964] - YouTube (15:03). 

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