Billy Woodberry's "Bless Their Little Hearts" (at the AFI USA Independent Showcase at the Monica 4-Plex), which was written and photographed by Charles Burnett, is about as direct and unvarnished as a film can get. It's an unflinching, deeply compassionate portrait of an ordinary black man (Nate Hardman) with a wife (Kaycee Moore) and three children (played by Burnett's own children) but no job.
A semi-skilled laborer, Hardman's Charlie Banks routinely applies for work at a state employment office and commences the grinding round of looking for a job. As time goes by he gets increasingly desperate, cheats on his wife, and takes out his frustrations on his family. The harder things get for him, the more his wife demands that he "be a man." The tired platitudes--e.g., "You've got to make sacrifices to become a success"--of well-intended friends sound hollow and alienating, even mocking; despair commences to isolate him.
The inevitable, inescapable point that Charlie's ordeal makes is that without a job a working man is nothing in our society. The way Woodberry and Burnett make their point is flawed yet commands deep respect. This film is not as cohesive as Burnett's similar "Killer of Sheep"; it hasn't the earlier film's poetic vision to give it impact. Too often it succumbs to the boredom that dogs Charlie. In short, "Bless Their Little Hearts" is rough-hewn and ragged around the edges--fortunately, it gets better as it goes along.
If the film is tough going because it rambles, it is nonetheless admirably tough-minded and therefore worth the effort. Hardman and Moore are a thoroughly believable young, care-worn married couple, their love inextricably bound up in their rage at each other and their fate. In spirit, they are noble, for they don't curse the racism that has so much to do with their situation.
Woodberry and Burnett, in turn, are too smart, too dignified to make special pleas; they realize that simply in telling it like it is all the social and economic injustices threatening to crush this couple are self-evident. In a very real way Charlie is a truly tragic hero, his flaw being merely naivete rather than an overweening pride. A willingness to work and simple decency are no longer enough for a man--especially a black man--to survive in our society. That was true when "Bless Their Little Hearts" was made in 1984, and it is, sadly, even truer today.
'Bless Their Little Hearts'
Nate Hardman: Charlie Banks
Kaycee Moore: Andais Banks
Angela, Ronald and Kimberly Burnett: Bank children
Producer-director-editor Billy Woodberry. Writer-cinematographer Charles Burnett. Additional cinematography Patrick Melly. Music "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" arranged by Archie Shepp; "Lost in a Dream," Little Esther Phillips. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.
Times-rated Mature (adult themes, situations).