REVIEW: Bless Their Little Hearts [1984]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: NR | Runtime: 80 minutes | Release Date: 1984 (USA)
Studio: Black Independent Features / Milestone Film & Video
Director(s): Billy Woodberry
Writer(s): Charles Burnett

“I’m tired, tired, tired. Start trying to be a man.”

There’s no getting around the connection that binds Billy Woodberry‘s Bless Their Little Hearts to Charles Burnett‘s Killer of Sheep. Both were written by Burnett, shot in Watts, and entries in the movement known as the “LA Rebellion”. They both deal with the struggle to survive as a family on the poverty line with little wiggle room as far as an escape. But even as they share cast/crew members barely five years apart, the two are also as different from the other as possible. Because as Burnett’s shows the sanctity of morality and faith that survival arrives through hard work and dedication, Woodberry’s delivers the slippery slope of self-destruction when perseverance and tenacity become too much to bear. For Charlie Banks (Nate Hardman), hope is a fool’s dream.

With this shift in tone and focus comes a difference in style as well—the two UCLA-taught filmmakers building individual aesthetics born from a common source. Woodberry’s film comes with statically generic set-ups lending the scenes onscreen a feeling of stage-play wherein environment takes a backseat to performance. Killer of Sheep was conversely as much about its locale and those inhabiting it as the focal point of patriarch Stan. Bless Their Little Hearts pushes in closer to Charlie and Andais Banks (Kaycee Moore) to expose what the world surrounding them has done to their identities. This is their story rather than an over-arching time capsule preserving a singular place of historical importance. They’ve already been through the wringer, their inevitable breaking points a resonate byproduct of their frustration.

So we’re given quiet vignettes of that dissolution whether it be Charlie filling out forms at the unemployment office with only the film’s score as sound or Andais riding the subway to work so they’ll have enough money to buy groceries and pay bills. Woodberry makes sure to highlight the effort that goes into acquiring what little they have and ensures we understand his weakness as much as her strength. She goes to work and comes home to cook dinner with help from their three young children, too smart to pretend Charlie is holding up his end of the bargain. He shuffles off to find something resembling a job, often succeeding before heading to his friend Duck’s for a drink or the home of an old flame rekindled.

Andais is therefore trapped. She’s the breadwinner, housewife, and parent—the glue holding everything together. If she doesn’t no one else will as evidenced by an empty house and cold stove each night. Charlie on the other hand is trapped within his mind, pride forcing him to seek escape from his failure. This has been going on for years and every day he comes home without a steady job or money is a day he’s let everyone down. So he finds comfort in a mistress, someone he can spend time with removed from the responsibilities and preconceptions weighing him down at home. It’s a selfish, cowardly act and yet we sympathize with his plight nonetheless. We care about Andais more, of course, but both are products of circumstance.

Life in Watts is where the fantasy of robbing banks enters conversation as a legitimate “what if” scenario for a quick fix. If not for his kids Charlie might take it seriously too, but he can’t risk leaving them alone—a thought made more impactful by the fact he does anyway without jail as an excuse. This is the mentality Woodberry and Burnett put on display, one built from hypocrisy, futility, and desperation. They show how the home is transformed from safe place to reminder of defeat. We see Charlie is trying and know it makes him feel worse to have nothing to show for it. We see Andais’ understanding with authentic compassion, her explosion a result of his taking her for granted, not his lack of success.

The entire film is progressing towards this unforgettable scene of bare emotion. It’s a long-take argument in the kitchen with Hardman and Moore laying everything on the line. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn August Wilson had this moment in the back of his mind when writing “Fences” two years later because the similarities to his own blow-up between Troy and Rose is unmistakable. A better excuse, however, would be to use this comparison as proof of just how successful the creators of both works of art were in putting the life of a black family onscreen whether set in the 80s, 50s, or any other period. The added pressure and sacrifice through race cannot be undervalued. Their embrace of human flaws a necessity to render humanity’s truth.

Everything I thought was missing from Kaycee Moore’s character in Killer of Sheep is present in this single exchange. All that her Andais let fester boils over as she refuses to listen to one more lie on behalf of her husband. And he enters not with contrition, but a heavy heart realizing he’s officially made it so he has no safe haven. By trying to separate his life in two he’s alienated those who may have been able to help him become whole again. Hubris took the last of what he had. Those he believed he didn’t deserve now find themselves believing he doesn’t. Not only that, perhaps they don’t need him either. It all comes down to how much of your own ego you’re willing to sacrifice.

That this concept comes from a barber only proves yet again how culturally relevant Bless Their Little Hearts is during a period of cinematic history that marginalized the black experience and used its population to service white heroes. The film isn’t perfect, wears its budget on its sleeve, and finds its final two or three scenes disjointed through incongruous jump cuts that feel like whole scenes are missing, but it’s honest in its decision to not sanitize life’s hardships. Its place on the Library of Congress’ Nation Film Registry is warranted for that kitchen spat alone, but the rest serves as a necessary prologue and epilogue to its airing of emotion. Woodberry isn’t concerned with forgiveness—just our understanding that freedom rarely comes with streets paved in gold.

courtesy of Milestone

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