September 14, 2017 - 10:30am
Posted by Jim Healy


These notes on Bless Their Little Hearts were written by Zachary Zahos, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A new restoration of Bless Their Little Hearts from Milestone Films will screen in our series tribute to Charles Burnett this Friday, September 15, at 7 p.m. in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. Charles Burnett will deliver a talk in the UW's Distinguished Lecture Series on Thursday, September 21 at the Memorial Union Theater. He will also appear in person at the Cinematheque's screening of To Sleep With Anger on Friday, September 22.

By Zachary Zahos

The gap between Bless Their Little Hearts’s excellence and any wide recognition of such reveals the limits on our access to film history. Once yawning, this gap has narrowed considerably since this past spring, when Milestone Films began distributing a restored cut of the 1984 film to theaters around the world. With home media and streaming availability around the corner, Bless Their Little Hearts presently enjoys its widest audience ever. On top of rave reviews from respected critics, members of the African-American community have embraced the film at venues like Harlem’s RAW SPACE gallery, where director Billy Woodberry and screenwriter-cinematographer Charles Burnett hosted a joint Q&A following a screening in May.

That Bless Their Little Hearts always seems to trail Burnett’s 1977 feature Killer of Sheep in conversation and, subsequently, evaluation hints at the former film’s obscured place in black American independent cinema—to say nothing of American cinema as a whole. First, both films share Burnett in key creative roles, and both star Kaycee Moore as the leading woman as well as Burnett’s niece, Angela, and nephew, Ronald. In 16mm black-and-white, both tell stories of disadvantaged, depressed black men struggling to support their families in the Watts neighborhood of South Los Angeles; more specifically, both feature scenes of fathers and mothers berating their sons for not acting or looking enough “like a man.” Both highlight the jazz, blues, and gospel tradition with inspired soundtrack selections from Dinah Washington and Paul Robeson, in Killer, and Archie Shepp and Horace Parlan, in Bless. Both typify the aesthetic and social concerns of the L.A. Rebellion, the movement of black educators and filmmakers—Burnett, Woodberry, Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust), and Haile Gerima (Bush Mama) among them—who forged a vibrant, collaborative creative community at UCLA’s Film School following the 1965 unrest in Watts.
All these affinities, and yet of the two, cinephiles know only Killer of Sheep. The wonky, counterintuitive distribution histories of these two films, which are inextricably informed by deeper biases, help to clarify this discrepancy. Despite being made over half a decade before Bless, Killer of Sheep rather famously did not receive an official release until 2007. Sporadic college screenings confirmed to the lucky few the quality of Burnett’s film, but the expense of securing the music rights for its soundtrack precluded even limited distribution. It took the herculean efforts of Milestone’s Amy Heller and Dennis Doros, in restoration, fundraising, and publicity, to clear the legal hurdles thirty years later. Glowing appraisals from Roger Ebert, Dave Kehr, Manohla Dargis, and the entire upper shelf of film critics followed suit, viewers paid to watch it, and ever since Killer of Sheep has cemented a formidable reputation as an unearthed treasure, a classic of black American cinema.  

Throughout this same time, Bless Their Little Hearts weathered an inverse, adverse fate. Unlike Killer, Bless received proper—albeit highly limited—theatrical distribution, playing at New York’s Film Forum and other small but influential screens in 1984. Yet few watched it in the intervening years, a fact awkwardly evident even when it has been singled out for praise. In an article announcing the 2013 additions to Library of Congress’s National Film Registry, for instance, Variety described honoree Bless as a documentary. It is true that Woodberry, post-Bless, has not followed up with another narrative project, instead pursuing documentary (most recently And When I Die, I Won’t Stay Dead, about beat poet Bob Kaufman, in 2015—after the Variety article), art installations, and a full-time teaching job at the CalArts School of Film and Video since 1989. But just because Woodberry, unlike Burnett, cannot be championed via the standard auteurist framework (i.e., teasing themes out of a wide oeuvre) does not lessen Bless Their Little Heart’s power of expression. Such a film poses welcome evaluative challenges that we as spectators should accept, without lapsing into erasure or stubborn hierarchizing. What do we make of Bless’s shared authorship—between Woodberry, Burnett, and actors Kaycee Moore and Nate Hardman—beside raising one man, mythically, above the others? Can we identify the rhymes between Bless and Killer while also calling attention to their differences? Can Killer of Sheep simply not be the only black American film not directed by Spike Lee allowed in the pantheon of great films?

For my part, I want to single out for appreciation one gorgeous, multivalent scene from Bless Their Little Hearts. Not the nine-minute, single-take fight between husband, Charlie Banks (Hardman), and wife, Andais (Moore)—if anything about Bless is legend, it is that improvised, heartrending torrent. Rather, I am equally struck by a much quieter, earlier scene that takes place in the Banks household’s only bathroom. Framed from a considerable distance, Charlie shaves in front of the mirror. While unemployment dogs his waking hours and nights, Charlie’s absorption in this ritual, underscored via his gentle humming and the shot’s unhurried duration, suggests a man at ease. In close-up, Charlie side-eyes an intruder at the door: daughter Angie (Angela Burnett), who impatiently scurries away. His shave continues. Clear razor strokes work at the remainder of the chin, white shaving cream disappearing from black skin in a simple, captivating bit of graphic play. In a series of faster, full-on close-ups, the faucet grows louder, Charlie bends slowly toward the sink to wash his face, and, channeling fearsome energies straight from his subconscious, he closes both faucet handles impossibly tight.

Through camera angle, ambience, and a sly escalation of dramatic stakes, this small, two-line scene of shaving somehow takes on a dimension of the sacred. It echoes the famous, unexpectedly cryptic episode of the housemaid preparing coffee in Vittorio de Sica’s Umberto D., where it is “life itself that becomes spectacle” as critic André Bazin memorably claimed. It answers that film, too, by evoking a fuller, more rambunctious sense of community within this small house. After Charlie leaves the bathroom, Angie reenters and struggles to turn on the faucet her father sealed shut. Her solution to this problem is too satisfying to spoil, but it demonstrates that, like all great filmmakers, Woodberry and Burnett can turn from profound contemplation to comedy on a dime.