Bless Their Little Hearts


Last year, Charles Burnett’s 1977 debut, Killer of Sheep, finally got the theatrical release and large audience denied it for 30 years. Depending on Hollywood’s timetable or yours, this marvelous 1984 slice-of-life drama—written and photographed by Burnett and directed by his UCLA compatriot, Billy Woodberry— is either six years ahead of schedule for discovery or 24 long years overdue. Like Killer of Sheep, it’s an elliptical yet richly drawn black-and-white portrait of an African-American family man, Charlie Banks (note the initials), struggling to hold onto his flagging pride without money or fulfilling work. Since Charlie (Nate Hardman, in a crumbling edifice of a performance) hasn’t had a job in years, scuffling and scavenging to keep his marriage and family barely together, the situation in Woodberry’s film is even more grave than it was in Killer of Sheep—and yet, if anything, the balm of the blues and laughter here is even more restorative. The movie’s comedy is the humor of precise we’ve-all-been-there observation, as when Charlie’s little girl (Burnett’s own daughter Angela) finds an ingenious way to dislodge the bathroom faucet that her daddy has clamped tight. Its poetry lies in the exaltation of ordinary detail: the rings of gouged wood that once held kitchen-drawer pulls—touches that suggest not only the years of living and hard use that came before, but all those still to come. Given a spine of steel by Kaycee Moore’s blazing performance as Charlie’s seething wife, and a groove as deep as silt by a superlative soundtrack of gospelly R&B and jazz, Bless Their Little Hearts forms, with Killer of Sheep, a landmark diptych about work as the crucible of the American character—either in its abundance or its absence.