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“People Can Choose to Create the Collective, Social Experience”: Billy Woodberry on Bless Their Little Hearts

Nate Hardman in Bless Their Little Hearts

Billy Woodberry was a graduate student in UCLA’s film program when he started work on Bless Their Little Hearts (1984), a gauzy black-and-white portrait of a married couple in Watts as their responsibilities to one another are tested by the burdens of underemployment. Day-to-day gigging against a background of vanishing local industry, Charlie Banks (Nate Hardman) embarks on an affair, while his exhausted wife Andais (Kaycee Hardman) works double-time, commuting to her own job while also looking after their home and children. Chafing against the confines of roles that no longer seem to fit, their affections are suffocated by limits of both resource and opportunity: in one scene, Andais secretly gives Charlie money from her own wallet to give to the children for the church’s collection plate — much to his shame — so they can maintain the illusion that he is still the primary breadwinner.

If Bless Their Little Hearts is short on speeches, Charlie’s disappeared job prospects nevertheless point back to the invisible hand of Reaganomics, capping an epoch of American film history that began with the 1969 Watts riots; UCLA would soon expand its criteria for admissions, ushering in more students of color. Woodberry was part of the movement of young, black filmmakers studying there which eventually came to be known as the LA Rebellion. Taking place in the same neighborhood as Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, Hearts was written and mostly shot by Burnett, easily the Rebellion’s most famous member.

Renowned among the most rigorous of cinephiles for its kitchen sink scene (a jaw-dropping, semi-improvised fight between Moore and Hardman late in the film that spans a single reel), Hearts is at the beginning of a sorely overdue revival, courtesy of a glistening new restoration from Milestone Films, who are also exhibiting Woodberry’s 1980 short The Pocketbook, adapted from Langston Hughes’ “Thank You, Ma’am.” Woodberry’s only feature until And When I Die, I Won’t Stay Dead, his 2015 documentary about the poet Bob Kaufman, Hearts is a disarming, hyperspecific and ultimately devastating portrait of LA’s working class, shot in piecemeal fashion in friends’ homes, empty lots and even on public transit, the harsh sunlight beating down throughout. As Woodberry recalled of one scene set on a bus, “We paid three fares, we made our shot, we got off the bus.”

Filmmaker: Where does the movie’s title come from?

Woodberry: It comes from Charles Burnett. Kaycee Moore says it. It’s an expression that people use, maybe Southern people. It’s a colloquial expression. It’s not patronizing; usually people who say it, they say it with affection and solidarity. They see someone bumping their head against the wall — “Okay, but he can’t do anything else. Poor thing.”

Filmmaker: And this was your master’s thesis for UCLA?

Woodberry: Yes. I could have gotten my master’s by showing a portion of the film; as a matter of fact, I did do that. It was not about the degree, but that was the justification for starting it. I wanted to finish the film, so I did after I got the degree. Then it was about finding the money, the way to finish it.

Filmmaker: Can you talk a little about the movie’s environment? We were trying to guess where you shot the brush-clearing scene, the guys selling fish by the freeway, the drive where Charlie looks out the window and sees that abandoned structure …

Woodberry: That was a Goodyear factory. It was on Central Avenue. It was an old structure: three, four stories, made of brick, like old factories in the east. You don’t have buildings made of brick in Los Angeles anymore. It had been a major employer because it was a union plant and you had decent wages. You could fight for better. When they knocked it down, it was a loss. But it’s also a kind of imaginary landscape. The house where they live is actually on Sixth Avenue on the west side, south of Pico. It was the house of a friend who went to UCLA. She even ended up staying in the house some months beyond when she wanted to move out because she was concerned about my continuity.

A number of scenes were in Watts: when the guy tells him, “I can’t use you anymore” — that’s actually behind the house of a neighbor of Charles’s family. Cutting the weeds is two places: one is up in the canyons. We just found the grass. But the other place he cuts it is in View Park. The interesting thing is, when you clear the grass, you can actually see the skyline. Charles moved around the corner from that place. A developer bought that plot and he put a couple million-dollar homes on it. You can’t go back there anymore.

Where they’re selling the fish, at the end, that comes off the 110 freeway, maybe near Century. There was a big vacant lot, and those trucks used to come and sell produce, that kind of thing. We just occupied it, no permission. We literally were stopping the cars. That worker who comes, and the guy is trying to sell him the fish — he was a real person.

Filmmaker: So much of the film is about the question, “What are you willing to do?” What did your two leads bring from their own lives to influence their characters?

Woodberry: Oh, they brought a lot of themselves to it — especially in the big argument scene. Charles had worked with Kaycee before: He had a scene he had written, and when he tried to get her to stay with what he had written, he felt that it was too much restraint, and that she had a kind of power and strength beyond that. For this scene, they had a full page of description, but no dialogue: description of where they were in the story, of what her character knows, what she has come to intuit — the clues and the sense she’s getting in her interactions with him. It’s bound to come to a confrontation. Then it describes how he might try to get out of it. He might try to avoid it, you know? He might try to dissemble it and do different things. But no dialogue.

Then we shot the scene; [Kaycee] has talked about how she wanted us to leave the table in the kitchen because she wanted a barrier between herself and him. But we removed it, because we wanted it to be possible to move in the space. She accepted it. Nate was looking at the floor, and then they started the scene. Just the three of them inside the room. And when they started the first time, Nate grabbed Kaycee. [I said], “Okay, stop. You can’t grab her. When you use physical force, everything stops. You have to find another solution to engage, to deal with it. Don’t touch her.” We calmed it down and we started again. The second take, in total, is what’s in the film. We just cut off the head and the tail. And we cut off my telling [Nate], “Come out, come out, come out.” When he goes to try to comfort her, plead with her, that’s it.

Filmmaker: There was no third take?

Woodberry: The third take was completely laughable because they didn’t have anything left. I thought, “Okay, you might need coverage in case it doesn’t work, we’ll try.” But nobody believed it and it was completely boring. Nobody cared. I don’t know where the footage is. Sometimes you don’t need more. You have the start, all that happens, and then the end. It’s from them, it’s from her, her experience of life, the things she’s dealt with, and him too. It’s the things they know and feel — that’s where they were working from. And the children were special. Maybe people don’t fully realize it, but in some ways they amplify, and they give you a way to understand, or to realize the stakes in encounters where they’re present. When [Kaycee] throws the chicken against the wall, you see her doing it and we leave her there — but then you look at Kim, the little girl at the sink washing dishes, and she’s feeling all of this violence and this confusion. She shows that on her face. It’s the woman, it’s the two girls in the room, it’s all of that. Small things.

Filmmaker: The Burnett kids in the film — are those Charles’s children?

Woodberry: Those are his nieces and nephews. Their father was very kind, very supportive. He visited the set once, and the children became angelic and well-behaved — but he did nothing! He had a way of indicating that you were working, not playing. They were like that; you let them know you needed them, and they’d go to work. Charles knew that, but one way [we made sure] they felt good, they felt comfortable, was we brought their playmates and their cousins [to the set]. So there were quite a few children around. We brought their cousins even if they weren’t in the scene, so they could carry on and wouldn’t need to “turn off.”

They had been — except for Kim — in Charles’s films since they were small. I dunno if he tells it, but it’s a fact: Ronald [Burnett] was the guy who ran the Nagra a lot of times on Killer of Sheep, even though he was, like, six! So they knew what went on, and they were respectful to the adults, they were good — they could kinda sense what was supposed to happen and do what they needed to do. They were so responsive: quite gifted, quite serious. We weren’t torturing them to make it like that, by the way. They were just sensitive children who could understand where they were in the story.

Filmmaker: I’ve read that Charles’s script was originally more of a treatment.

Woodberry: No, it’s not true. It was a script. Maybe, okay, in conventional terms, it wasn’t 120 pages, but all of the movie was written.

Filmmaker: Once it was in your hands, did you amend it?

Woodberry: I changed the ending. I had to reshoot whatever we had before, but the other guys couldn’t do it. So I got new people through one of the guys who’s in the film; he was a childhood friend of Charles’s, and I got him, and then he got me the other guys — except for Gene Cherry, who’s a veteran; he was in virtually all of Charles’s films. He was a kind of in-law. He and Charles’s brother married sisters, so he’s the uncle of the Burnett children in the film. There’s a scene with a little boy getting a haircut — that’s Gene Cherry’s son.

I had to find a new cameraman because Charles was busy doing [his film] My Brother’s Wedding. I had another friend — his name was Patrick Melly — who was maybe a couple years behind us in school, but he was a talented cameraman and he agreed to do it, no problem. So we did it with him. The ending of the film, the stuff at the beginning with the guys at the table — we reshot all that.

Filmmaker: What was the original ending?

Woodberry: Charles had imagined an ending where the characters would dress up as clownish figures and try to attract attention to sell the fish in this particular way. I couldn’t imagine, in 1983, when we were finishing the movie, that people would do what Charles was describing. Little did I know: now you have people dressing up as the Statue of Liberty, as chickens, as anything, to try and sell. I couldn’t imagine that people would be available for that. But also, once the tone was established by the other material, it suggested I needed to find a resolution that would flow from what you had seen before. And it was a kind of economical way of doing it.

Filmmaker: You had already worked with kids for your short film The Pocketbook. How did you find them? Who was the main kid?

Woodberry: His name was Ray Cherry. He died shortly after we made the movie — he was hit on his bike at night. I think he died around the age of thirteen. With The Pocketbook what happened was, I knew I wanted to shoot this thing of them playing in the railyard first. My idea was: “The guy who will play the lead — who will handle the dialogue, the purse-snatching, and all that — I’ll know who he is when they finish playing.” So I gave them things to do: “Play. Throw around things you find.” And then I noticed that boy had the ability to be by himself; he was the leader, even if he never said a word. He had a sense of himself, an internal sense. He could hold the screen! So I said, “That’s the guy.” I told him, “Bring kids and we’re gonna go to this place, shoot some scenes.” He brought these friends, and then I realized it was him, so we made the film together.

Filmmaker: Back to the scene in Bless Their Little Hearts with Kaycee Moore throwing the chicken in the kitchen: I expected a reverse-cut of the chicken lying on the floor. But you never do those kinds of punctuations for the scenes. You mentioned coverage for the fight scene — what are your thoughts on bucking the orthodoxy of film professors?

Woodberry: Well, maybe it was good to learn the rules, and to understand how to do things in a conventional way. Sometimes you would do it that way and then throw it out. You may realize there’s no need, or it doesn’t apply. Because of the time we were in school, and what we were exposed to with the new cinemas — after the Nouvelle Vague, we were partial to the new cinemas of Latin America — we saw that it was possible to mix styles and languages and approaches, to make a more synthetic way … it was more expressive. Maybe you needed to convince yourself, “Okay, if I need to do this, I know how to not violate the 180-degree rule.” And even I have some scenes [that do]. In the editing, you find out if it worked or not. You work with it.

But it’s not like we didn’t learn the rules. Nobody was holding the rulebook on us; they were more receptive, interested, curious: “Okay, you might have done it like that.” That was the kind of school [UCLA] was. If you were careless and not serious and didn’t know what you were doing — just flaunting — then they might object.

Filmmaker: Now that you’ve been a teacher for many years, how do you feel about the guidance you received at the time?

Woodberry: They had already taught me all the different technical and craft things involved. I spent three years with them, doing courses in sound, editing, all of those things. You learn the kinds of films that you like, that they find interesting, that they like, and so on. Once they figured out I was trying to do something, after I made the second film — the little film [The Pocketbook] — I was given a TA-ship.

When I came with the proposal to do this film [Bless Their Little Hearts], they were supportive and encouraging. We had a professor who used to make jokes about it, but they never said, “Don’t make long films.” The worry was, because it was a school environment, there was a limited amount of equipment, of things available. You shared that, so if you used it excessively, you would maybe exclude others. But they didn’t know what you were doing until you needed to show them something. Of course, periodically they’d ask you, and you would have to show them what you were doing. My adviser, Ed Brokaw, had been an editor, so showing him was wise; he had been my adviser from the beginning and I learned a lot with him. He would want to know what I was up to, so I’d arrange to show him rushes, and I could have a sense of where I was going.

We had another teacher, Richard Hawkins, who was the chair at one point. He used to joke with Charles and others: “Don’t let him get involved, or your film will end up being three hours long!” He was kidding, but he was also a great protector; as long as you were working, producing, he would leave you alone. He managed to shut the others up. He quietly protected a space for people to create without being harangued or bothered: “Let’s find something else to do, because others need the help.” The other thing was, people would say later, “Oh, I’ll make a feature.” He’d say, “In fact, it’s not accurate — you’re just making a longer film. Because no one is going to the the-a-ter to pay their money to see your one film. It’s not a feature — it’s probably a C-movie, and you’ll play two of them for one price.” He was talking with Charles about it when we were first starting, like, “How long should this thing be?”

Filmmaker: When you were a student, what kinds of films were you thinking about? What were you interested in?

Woodberry: Maybe I was more open and curious, but I know I was interested in this Cinema Novo from Brazil. I was interested in Cuban cinema. I was interested in Italian cinema. It was a moment when a lot of people who had been historians or language teachers were interested in cinema, so they would start a course: “Italian Through Cinema.” It was in the Italian department, but you could go, and you could see all of the films of the 1940s and after. The only prints you could get would have English subtitles. So what you saw and you discovered … Italian neorealism everyone is aware of, but there was also a whole series of social comedies created by Sergio Amedei, one of the writers of Rome, Open City. He was fascinated by the Roman dialect of the popular classes, and he thought, “This is something really special, and we can make incredible things with this language and with these people.” So they made a whole series of comedies that are not so well-known.

The other thing is, before I went to film school, I was interested in political theory and politics, left culture and Marxism and all that. I used to go to a special place in LA called the Long March. It was a bit Maoist, but it was fantastic, because it was not as sectarian as that. You could meet all kinds of characters there. And they had a very strong cultural program. So I saw the Soviet classics there; I saw Threepenny Opera there. I saw people who were convinced about the ideas, not the cinema — although some sophisticates went there, too. You could see films, buy books, drink tea, and see characters.

I remember there was a famous film by Mario Monicelli called The Organizer, with Marcello Mastroianni. [After seeing it,] me and my companion at the time started to talk to a guy. It turned out he was a brilliant mathematician, but he had decided to be an organizer. And we said, “He’s like the professor from this movie!” So it was fun. But also you had to sit through The East Is Red, The Girl With White Hair … later I met the Chinese director of some of those films. He was great.

We also had some repertory theaters, and for $5, you could go on a date and see Fabian and The Conformist on the same bill. And you would probably have 250 other crazy souls there to see it with you. [Laughs.] I remember The Battle of Chile came because it was a big cause, and the theater was completely sold out, with people sitting in the aisles. Staff started to complain about the fire marshal. Suddenly a Scandinavian anarchist jumped on the stage, got the mic, called them lots of curse words, and said, “Leave the people be!” So we violated the code and watched the film.

Filmmaker: People could be having some of those same awakenings watching The Battle of Chile today, but it’s all happening at home. Which is to say, maybe it’s not happening?

Woodberry: One great thing is, you can educate yourself fairly thoroughly with the amount of films that are available in high quality. If you study and devise a course for yourself, you can learn a lot about cinema. The thing with that is, [in the past] there was maybe the possibility that you would see the film, and then you would discuss till 2 in the morning, and you would have arguments and fall out, and make up, carry the discussion for a week and keep bringing it up. So that is somewhat different. But people can choose to create the collective, social experience of sharing it with each other. Say if they lived in a building with a recreation room — they could invite people. People are showing [films] outdoors in the city, in Harlem — this group ImageNation are putting on a series of outdoor screenings. They’re going to screen Moonlight and all kinds of things. So I think maybe it’s still possible, but it’s not so common.

aThere are not so many repertory houses left. We have a few in Los Angeles still. Are they as passionately followed? Something like Cinefamily or the Echo Park Film Center — they’re kind of throwbacks, but at the same time there’s a kind of community, and regular programs and attendance and invitations. The Pan African Film Festival, in the Baldwin Hills area, is passionately attended. There was a film about an African intellectual from Senegal, Cheikh Anta Diop, who contested the idea that black Africa had made no contribution to Egyptian civilization. We have passionate followers of this idea, and when the filmmakers arrived, they found a theater packed with maybe 500 people, completely engaged in the 52-minute film that they made. Passionate! Each screening sold out. Another colleague from UCLA, Barbara McCullough, she made a film about a famous musician from the black community in Los Angeles named Horace Tapscott. Both screenings sold out. She won the audience prize. And they wait every year for that festival to come — the ones who are retired, or they take off from work, the young ones. They come. It’s amazing. It thrives.

Filmmaker: There’s a community, but maybe it’s divided in a different way.

Woodberry: Yeah, it’s different; it’s challenged. Then it was a kind of new moment, a kind of crazy optimism. It was unviable. Nobody was clamoring for these films but us and the people in the culture. People were gaining access learning about all kinds of new things and possibilities — but it was not like the studios were just waiting for you to show up. There were no invitations for us. So, in a way, there was no need to hold back. It may be your last time, or it may be a long time, so maybe you should try to put in everything you have to say — you should say it as fully as you possibly can, until the next time. And we don’t know when that is! So you better do it now. There was a kind of freedom inherent in it. You would do what you needed to do, or what you could do, based on what your colleagues and the people you respected thought.

Filmmaker: You’re talking about the so-called LA Rebellion.

Woodberry: Yeah. The people who taught you, who helped you, who worked with you — it was like, what do they think? Because I don’t want to let down the standard, or not meet the challenge. I don’t want to not be serious — serious in an open sense. You don’t wanna let them down, because they worked hard to make the best thing they could make. You don’t have to make what they make, but make something that we can respect, that we can care about, that you can offer.

Filmmaker: I remember an interview with Burnett where he says filmmaking was a medium for only the middle class and upper — in other words, that it’s hard to get access to those resources. You’re talking about a time when it was easier for people without a lot of money to get into a school like UCLA, right?

Woodberry: It was not so easy to get into UCLA. It was a moment in the history of the university system in California when — after Watts, 1965, after Harlem — liberal people, people in the establishment, started to realize it was a good idea if people had access to higher education. People were demanding this, right? They hadn’t made it equitable and accessible. So some of them started to think, “How should it be done?” So, in the leading universities, they started to devise ways. In California, they were reminded that it was a public system and it was open to high-school graduates with a certain grade point average. The graduate programs were open to people who met the requirements, and they should be encouraged to come.

After some struggle and contestation in the film school at UCLA, they opened the possibility of so-called “minority” people, entering the film school — the main film school. They had tried at first to come up with a program called Ethno-Communications. And it was hoped that it could draw people from other disciplines, the social sciences. They could have the experience and see the value of documentary and ethnographic film. They devised a full program to do that. A man who became a famous Chicano producer, Moctesuma Esparza, was one of the more vocal leaders of the movement to open the film program and the theater arts department to students who were excluded from it. And then the school started to take the applications and the interest seriously. So you had an increase in the numbers of people who went to the school in the ‘70s.

Filmmaker: When you say “open,” do you mean making it clear to people who were not young, well-off, white men, “You also have a place here, and this would also be valuable to you”? Or do you mean literally accepting applications?

Woodberry: I mean they had significant numbers of students, and those students demonstrated that they were interesting, that they had something to say, and they had the qualifications to enter the school. Then they started to accept the idea: “Maybe this is something we should be doing. This is something we have to do.” So people would apply and they could be admitted. Before that, not so many people went to the film school. Charles had already been in the school — he had gone as a graduate and an undergraduate. There were a few other people: Haile [Gerima] was in theater. Larry Clark entered the school as a regular student; he had done his undergraduate work in Ohio. Others came from different places. They applied, they were admitted, and they had a really strong class — in ‘72, ‘73, the first-year films were substantial. There were people around: Teshome Gabriel — he was from Ethiopia, and he became a film theorist and a doctor of film.

You had also more foreign students at UCLA: students from Iran, who were quite radical people, because they were opponents of the Shah. We had Egyptian students; we had a Vietnamese classmate; we had Greek students who didn’t want to be with the military regime in Greece at the time. It was rich. A lot of those people participated in the screening programs organized by students, showing cinema beyond the history of European and American cinema in school. And we had teachers who were sympathetic to radical projects in cinema, Godard …

One classmate from England wrote one of the first books about French cinema in 1968. Her name was Sylvia Harvey. We had Chicano friends and strong Asian-American, Japanese-American friends. They started [the organization] Visual Communications. Those people made lasting institutional projects — Visual Communications is still going. They helped to found the Asian Pacific Film Festival. So there was a lot of ferment.

The so-called white students at the school were also radical and thoughtful and creative people, men and women. A collective from UCLA and these left-wing, October League guys inside a lead factory in South LA did a collective film about a strike and a fight inside the factory. Some women made one of the first films made inside a prison.

Filmmaker: Bless Their Little Hearts itself doesn’t end in a call-to-arms or moment of radicalization. If anything, it seems like it starts after that moment has already taken place; in the opening scene, guys are talking about robbing banks. You talk about Third Cinema — a lot of those films end in a kind of manifesto.

Woodberry: I don’t know that [this film] is so political. Maybe it’s implicit. It’s about life outside of work — life without work. For this couple, one part is missing because [the husband] is not at his previous job, where he knew he’d bring a salary to her, and together they’d have consistent, regular contribution. He lost that. And the question is: What happens in the process, when a man loses his work? Which is what was happening to a lot of people at that time, in the different industrial places. We imagine he was a worker in a factory — maybe not a big works, but a supplier related to a big works. When we loses that, he needs to try to assess what is his place, what is his contribution — what is he doing in this family, in this couple, in this life? And he tries not to accept fully that that’s his condition. He tries to get any work so he can contribute.

His struggle to do that goes against the more general suggestion that people like him didn’t want to work. Maybe the politics is a kind of solidarity with the part of the working class that was experiencing that or dealing with that. It makes them present, it makes them the subject. Even our colleagues, they didn’t necessarily make movies about these people. Charles did, but not everybody. They made films about other social groups, other segments of the population.

Now when people talk about what’s happening with the working class, they come back with a kind of fiction about the “white working class,” as if the working class in the United States for a long time hasn’t been a multiethnic, multiracial class. [The film] offers evidence of what happens with that section of the working class after work. Because, a lot of times, people work together in dynamic industries — the auto industry, steel — but they don’t go home together. They don’t socialize together. The social segregation disguises how people live their lives after the job. The film offers, maybe, a way for them to see themselves — to see their class situation in another form.

It was an obvious kind of thing: People don’t want to work; the guys don’t want to take care of their children. Very simply, it’s not the case [with Nate Hardman’s character]. Some people have said, “But, oh, it’s not a black film. It’s a film about the working class.” Good — the working class is a universal class. It’s a bigger social identity than the particulars. That’s the kind of politics we hope that people can realize.

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