Director Billy Woodberry is understated when asked how it feels to have his 1984 film, “Bless Their Little Hearts” — a National Film Registry selection — available for the first time on home video from Milestone Film & Video.
“It took a long time,” he said in a recent phone interview from Lisbon, where he moved this year. “But at least it exists and people can have access to it and they can share it.”
Recognition for the film itself, added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2013 as a “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant American film, has been a long time coming as well.
Ross Lipman, who restored the film under the auspices of the UCLA Film & Television Archive, called “Bless Their Little Hearts” a “rare gem that finds both magic and pathos in the small events of everyday life.” He noted via email, “It’s all the more deserving of its moment, as it’s long lived in the shadow of [Charles Burnett’s] ‘Killer of Sheep.’ Together they forged a new road in American film which remains underexplored to this day.”
Set in the same South Los Angeles neighborhood as “Sheep,” “Bless Their Little Hearts” stars Nate Hardman and the incomparable Kaycee Moore as Charlie and Andais Banks, whose marriage is strained by Charlie’s chronic unemployment while Andais serves as the breadwinner.
“Bless” is one of the benchmark films of the L.A. Rebellion, a term coined by film scholar Clyde Taylor to refer to a group of black UCLA film students who, like their New Hollywood counterparts, endeavored to challenge the traditional studio system — taking an auteurist approach to how and what movies should be made.
These filmmakers were steeped more in new global cinema movements rather than the pantheon of classical Hollywood directors. “I was most impressed by the new cinemas, especially the ones coming out of Asia, Africa and South America, as well as Soviet cinema [of the 1920s] and Italian neorealism,” Woodberry said.
The blaxploitation films of the 1970s did not impress Woodberry. “Maybe I underestimated them because they were meant to be popular,” he said. “I thought they were opportunistic. I didn’t agree with their politics. They mocked young people trying to be activists. I remember the time of ‘Super Fly.’ Guys were walking around in midsummer in long coats and they were starting to straighten their hair. I preferred films like ‘Nothing But a Man.’”
Burnett’s “Killer of Sheep,” released in 1978, was rescued from obscurity in 2007 when Milestone released it on home video. It found an audience and a new generation of critics who championed its vision of a segment of black life rarely portrayed on-screen. It was one of the first 50 films to be inducted in the National Film Registry, established 30 years ago this year.
Burnett, the most prominent of the L.A. Rebellion filmmakers, was a mentor and creative inspiration to Woodberry (and others in the movement). “He was determined to make movies that he wasn’t seeing in theaters about a place he never saw portrayed,” Woodberry said. “He thought that life there was as interesting and valuable.”
When asked if he and the L.A. Rebellion filmmakers preferred to work outside the system, he laughed. “Hollywood wasn’t on our radar and we weren’t on theirs,” he said.
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Jacqueline Stewart, a professor of cinema and media studies at the University of Chicago and co-creator of the L.A. Rebellion Preservation Project (she is also the new host of “Silent Sunday Nights” on Turner Classic Movies), added: “They would have been very happy to have the funding; what they were not in a position to do unlike the New Hollywood filmmakers [of the time] was to effect the kind of structural transformation of American filmmaking such that there could be space for them in Hollywood. There was this consistent view that the kinds of stories they were telling and the kinds of audiences they were prioritizing were not a priority for Hollywood.”
Looking for a follow-up project to his well-received 1980 short film, “The Pocketbook ” (included as a special feature on the “Bless” DVD), Woodberry had his eye on adapting a William Faulkner short story. “I was trying to figure out how shoot a Faulkner story in Southern California,” Woodberry said with a laugh. “Charles [Burnett] told me he had a story and said, ‘I’ll write it and shoot it for you.’”
What he actually did was give Woodberry a 70-page blueprint for “Bless,” leaving him to flesh out the story and characters. It gave Woodberry confidence that Burnett had that kind of faith in his talents, but it was also a burden, he said. “This is someone I admire and was close to and I didn’t want to fail or disappoint him.”
“Bless” bears the stylistic hallmarks of the L.A. Rebellion films: an unflinching sense of place, long takes and naturalistic performances. Suffice to say, a studio would have insisted on ending the film with a deus-ex-machina happy ending, or at least a semblance of hope, for Charlie.
The film’s explosive set piece is a one-take, 10-minute confrontation between Andais and Charlie in which long-buried resentments are unleashed. While the film was scripted, this scene was mostly improvised by the actors. The tension is palpable; in the film’s press materials, Moore reveals that she had wanted a kitchen table between her and Hardman (“I knew I needed a way to keep Nate off me”), but when it came time to film the scene, the table had been removed.
There are three L.A. Rebellion films included in the National Film Registry, Woodberry noted: “Killer of Sheep,” “Bless Their Little Hearts” and Julie Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust.” Moore is in all three of them.
“Bless” had a limited theatrical run. It played for a week at the Royal in West Los Angeles “to qualify for the Academy Awards, which was a big jump,” Woodberry said with a laugh. It also played at the Film Forum in New York.
Woodberry expected the film to have a long life. “I thought it could play at film festivals because my colleagues had laid that path and some people were curious and interested, and it did that. I thought it could play the non-commercial circuit such as art centers, universities, churches and libraries. Then I thought it would be useful to generate conversation for people interested in the social and political issue of unemployment.”
For Dennis Doros and Amy Heller, the husband and wife co-founders of Milestone, the release of “Bless Their Little Hearts” is an imperative “to challenge the accepted cinematic canon and to seek out ‘lost’ films outside the Hollywood mainstream, especially focusing on women, African American and LGBTQ+ directors and stories,” Doros said in an email.
“Billy Woodberry and his films have not received nearly enough attention. We spent a long time on this DVD release to make sure that we have given this magnificent and powerful film its due and to focus on Billy’s achievements as well as the performance of the incredible Kaycee Moore. She has been terribly ignored by the industry. She should have been hired a hundred times over, and despite her limited work she should be celebrated as one of this country’s great actresses.”