Masterpiece, trendsetter, classic, national treasure. Visionary, genius, auteur, revolutionary. These are the words commonly used to describe the film and the filmmakers behind BLESS THEIR LITTLE HEARTS (BTLH,) a not-to-be-missed movie that just about everyone has missed.
The tell-it-like-it-is examination of a Watts, California family opened this week at central Harlem’s RAW SPACE. A well attended pre-opening screening, with the film’s director and cinematographer in attendance, suggested that folks are finally getting it – this is film at its best.
Billy Woodbury directed and produced the film. Charles Burnett wrote the screenplay and did the beautiful cinematography. That is the type of multi-tasking necessary when making super-independent films. Both are members of the so-called “L. A. Rebellion,” a loose collective of UCLA film makers who saw beyond Hollywood and determined to portray the reality of black life.
The Burnett-directed KILLER OF SHEEP, another masterful independent film, is part of this historic double feature. Although they are pretty much ignored by the Hollywood-crazy black consumer, both films were selected by the Library of Congress/National Film Registry due to their “cultural, historical, or aesthetic significance.”
Set in early 1980’s Watts, Los Angeles, BTLH tells the story of Charlie (Nate Herd) and Andais (Kaycee Moore) Banks, a salt of the earth couple facing some serious economic problems.
Act one, scene one places Charlie in a crowded unemployment office, where he is unable to
land a job. Clearly, he wants a job, as he pursues the day labor, barbershop solicitation, and roadside selling options open to him.
Andais is left to hold down the wage-earning duties and the “women’s work” around the house. Loyal, but not blindly loyal, she confronts her husband in the film’s emotional climax, questioning both his willingness to work and his fidelity to her. As the griots reminded us, there’s no romance without finance. The point is reinforced by his (spoiler alert!) crosstown sidepiece.
In addition to the central conflict, this film offers an accurate, intimate, and unapologetic view of life among a typical African-American family of the times. These are not the narrow sliver of the community that was positively impacted by the civil rights struggle. This film honors the larger community that was victimized by the austerity budgets, de-industrialization, and over-policing taking place then (and now.)
Andais and Charlie’s kitchen confrontation will undoubtedly draw comparisons to a similar scene in the Denzel Washington-directed movie FENCES. No one can deny the power of Viola Davis’ best actress Oscar-winning performance as Rose Maxson. Her career accomplishments in the mainstream industry are legendary. But Kaycee Moore’s performance cannot be seen as second best. Davis did have the snotty nose moment, but Andais’ underplayed sobs prove that sometimes, less is “Moore.” Remember, Ms. Davis was working from the classic August Wilson play. Even counting the necessary stage-to-screenplay revisions, the movie attempts to deliver his lines with minimal revisions. In BTLH, Ms. Moore improvises every heartfelt line. And her performance was done 30-some years earlier, without anywhere near the reported $24 million budget for FENCES.
Of course, the larger comparison is between the goals and sensibilities of these two films. One strives for inclusion in the Hollywood mainstream, the other seeks a new way of entertaining and educating the community.
BTLH is planned to end its run on Thursday, but as usual, the length of the theatrical run will depend on attendance. If people stop whining about # OSCARS SO WHITE, etc. who knows? Maybe this throwback to an earlier black film renaissance will catalyze a new one.
Praise must go to the ImageNation (http://www.imagenation.us/) hierarchy. Moikgantsi Kgama and Gregory Gates have orchestrated another winner. Praise also to Milestone films for the the clear, clean restoration of these historical treasures.
Please go and see these films. Hurry!