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Bless Their Little Hearts

Posted by martinteller on July 3, 2015

In South Central L.A., Charlie Banks (Nate Hardman) is endlessly looking for work, picking up occasional day jobs while his wife Andais (Kaycee Moore) picks up the slack in providing for their three children.  Adding additional strain to the household is Charlie’s affair with an old flame.

The most celebrated movie of the “L.A. Rebellion” movement, an African-American collective of independent filmmakers, is Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep.  This movie has much in common with it, starting with the fact that Burnett both wrote the screenplay and did the cinematography (not to mention the three Banks children are Burnett’s own kids).  It has a similar root in Italian neorealism — the episode with the fish may be a direct reference to La Terra Trema — with the use of non-actors and a focus on the social issues facing the underclass.

Like Killer of Sheep, the movie has a rambling structure that may make some viewers crave a stronger narrative.  However, it’s important to keep in mind that Hollywood was not telling this kind of story in 1984.  African-Americans were generally portrayed as pimps and thugs… if they were lucky, they got to be the sidekicks of white protagonists.  This was a rare opportunity to see African-Americans dealing with real life problems, as ordinary citizens.  There is no mention of drugs here.  The only evidence of gangs is the graffiti Charlie paints over on one of his odd jobs.  Charlie and his friends briefly bat around the idea of getting into robbery as a way to make a living, only to dismiss it as not right for them.  The problem they face is the same one that gives rise to drugs, gangs and crime: the lack of other opportunities.

And yet, Burnett and director Billy Woodberry don’t let Charlie completely off the hook, the hapless victim of an unjust economic structure.  Charlie doesn’t try as hard as he protests he does, or at least, he doesn’t appear to.  He lies to and cheats on his long-suffering wife,  who calls him out for hanging on to pipe dreams instead of facing the reality of their situation.  It evokes conflicted feelings for the viewer… we want to sympathize with Charlie’s situation, and yet he isn’t the greatest guy.  We must accept that the conditions are unfair, even when we don’t particularly like everyone affected by them.

The performances are sometimes glaringly amateur.  Hardman (who previously had a small role in Burnett’s My Brother’s Wedding, another movie hampered by poor acting) is not especially convincing and often seems to be searching for his lines.  However, the film’s most powerful scene is a 10-minute argument between Hardman and Moore.  The accounts I can find suggest this scene was improvised.  Whatever they did, it paid off.  Moore — in general, the strongest of the cast — is especially riveting here, and her repeated cries of “I’m tired” have a mighty impact.

The film ends on a solemn note of hopelessness, in an ambiguous scene that again makes us question how we feel about Charlie’s character.  Is he walking away from a potential opportunity, or does he feel the futility of it all?  The film may be rough around the edges, but it has some complexity, honesty, and is of significance in America’s cinematic history.  Rating: Good (79)


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