Film

‘Bless Their Little Hearts’ Director Billy Woodberry on His First Feature in Over Thirty Years

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And When I Die, I Won’t Stay Dead, which screens at the Museum of Modern Art on Friday as the opening-night selection of MoMA’s fifteenth Doc Fortnight festival, marks the first completed feature in over thirty years for Billy Woodberry.

In 1984, Woodberry directed, edited, and produced Bless Their Little Hearts, a cornerstone of black independent cinema in America. Set in Los Angeles, the movie shows the punishing toll irregular employment takes on family life, with achingly naturalistic performances and a poetic examination of South Central’s battered, long-gone industrial landscape. Bless Their Little Hearts positioned Woodberry as an exciting figure in the “L.A. Rebellion” initiative that included UCLA friends and classmates like Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust), Haile Gerima (Ashes and Embers), and Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep, To Sleep With Anger), who, in addition to being a great director in his own right, also scripted and shot Bless Their Little Hearts.

Bless Their Little Hearts, which was featured in BAMcinématek’s Indie 80s series last year and is examined in great detail in Thom Andersen’s admired documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), earned Woodberry acclaim for following marginalized characters with a concerted, sympathetic gaze. The movie’s opening scene shows Charlie Banks (Nate Herd) traipsing through an unemployment center, containing close-ups of Charlie’s pencil hitting blank forms, filling in the lines. But Woodberry has no interest in presenting a civics lesson: Charlie’s a well-meaning but flawed guy who cheats on his wife with a girl from the local laundromat. He also empties his frustrations onto his children, ripping into his son for not cutting his fingernails in one uncomfortable scene (“Are you a little girl? Are you a little sissy?”). Woodberry and Burnett give the movie a surface that alternates between neorealist-style glances at decrepit neighborhoods and lots, and musky interiors set in dark, cramped rooms at the ends of long, hot days.

And When I Die, I Won’t Stay Dead, Woodberry’s look at the life of the underrecognized African-American Beat poet Bob Kaufman (1925–1986), seems at first glance a complete one-eighty from Bless Their Little Hearts. And When I Die, I Won’t Stay Dead is an ostensibly straightforward documentary full of talking-head interviews and copiously assembled archival footage.

But there are more than a few parallels between the two films: an emphasis on institutional wrongdoing (after a bullshit arrest in Washington Square Park, Kaufman ended up at Bellevue Hospital, where he was subjected to shock treatment); a close evocation of setting (Woodberry’s interview subjects obsess not only over recalling where certain incidents occurred but mentioning specific cross streets as well); and a sympathetic presentation of a complex, drifting character capable of doing selfish things (Kaufman was estranged from much of his family, and one acquaintance recalls that during his adult life he might have had “one job for a week”).

Ahead of the New York premiere of And When I Die, I Won’t Stay Dead, Woodberry — in his booming, deliberate baritone, familiar from the movies he’s narrated, including Andersen’s Red Hollywood (1996) and James Benning’s Four Corners (1998) — spoke with the Voice from Los Angeles.

This is your first feature in over three decades. In addition to teaching, what are some of the other things you’ve been pursuing during that time?

What can I say? In a way, yeah, it’s true. For twenty, twenty-five years, I’ve been a teacher at the California Institute of the Arts. I’ve done some other things, but not a feature-length film. But just go with that. Let’s agree on that.

How long have you been researching Bob Kaufman? How were you introduced to his work?

I’ve been researching him for about twelve, fourteen years. I knew about him before, since the Seventies, from people who introduced me to his books. I always had his books, and I was impressed, but I didn’t know so much at the time. And then in 1986, I went to the City Lights bookstore and saw this magazine, Poetry Flash, and the cover [story] was about his death. At the time, I thought, “Maybe I should make a short movie about him. A kind of tribute.” But when I looked at it, I couldn’t figure out how to do it. I didn’t really grasp the tragic dimensions of his life. I was too naive — I didn’t know enough about life, enough about tragedy, enough about much. So I put it aside. In the early Aughts, I took it up again. I spent six or seven years researching it, another four or five years shooting it, and I spent two years editing it.

The narrative trajectory of the movie isn’t chronological: It begins in the throes of the Beat movement, then moves forward to Kaufman’s protracted isolation and “vow of silence,” then moves even further backward to his origins and his time in the National Maritime Union in the early Forties. How did you decide on this structure?

What happened was, I messed around with a few kinds of structures. With the one [I decided on], it seemed that, at a certain point, “Okay, that’s the way that people knew him: They came to know him.” The record that’s most available are the books he published, and the broadsides, and the things that were written about him in that time.

The people that remain who knew him at that time [of productivity] — they’re [there at the beginning of] the film. Then the next group of people are the people who met him after his return in the Seventies — I have some of those people. And then, finally, the people who studied him.

But to get to the people who studied him, it seemed that there was a pause, and there was [an opportunity] to break there, because you would want to know more — like, who was the guy? So we start to try to look into those things that maybe weren’t so well-known, weren’t so obvious, or weren’t known in any significant detail.

The movie ends quite beautifully. For the entire running time, Kaufman is represented through other people’s stories or recorded images of him, and then at the end, you finally present the sound of the man’s voice. Where does that footage come from? Did you always plan on ending the movie with his voice after withholding it for so long?

At a certain point, I understood that I would do it. I became content with doing it after trying it and seeing how it worked. The footage comes from a film called Heartbeat that I hope will be discovered and restored and made available. It’s a film made by a man called Will Combs, who’s a painter, an artist, a cinematographer. When he was a student at Santa Cruz, he had this idea to make a film with these poets, these people of North Beach. He knew a lot of them. He was able to make quite a wonderful film in that area with those people, and all of them cooperated. For some reason, they were inclined to do that. So it’s a very special film that never — he never showed it or worried over it. He still needs to track down the elements.

One of [Combs’s] classmates, Michael Dawson, owned a bookshop here in Los Angeles. I was in that bookshop with Allan Sekula, the late photographer, painter, writer, a good friend. [Sekula and I] were in that bookshop, Dawson’s Books, which was a renowned bookstore here for photography and other things. Michael Dawson remembered that his classmate had made a film about them. He found me the phone number of the man, and I called him up. That’s how I got the footage.

You have also directed a new ten-minute short about dockworkers, Marseille Après la Guerre. Can you give a quick summary of that?

These photographs [that make up the short] were found in the collection of the National Maritime Union, in their archives at the NYU library. They are views and photographs of the docks of Marseilles after the Second World War. The film is also a kind of tribute to Ousmane Sembène, the Senegalese writer and filmmaker, because in ’47, he made his way back to France after serving in the war. He went back to Marseilles, where he worked and lived as a dockworker and joined the CGT [General Confederation of Labor]. So it’s a tribute to him, and a tribute those dock people, and to Marseilles at the time.

It’s also a tribute to a group of young musicians who kind of reclaimed this heritage. They were very responsive to a book by Claude McKay, a Jamaican writer who lived in the United States. He wrote a book in Marseilles called Banjo, about life in the old ports of Marseilles. It’s quite a book. These young musicians — they said if their band was a book, it would be called Banjo. I liked their music, so we used it. So it’s a way of promoting my affection for Sembène and for that world and also for finding that material.

Can you compare your experiences on your different features — the first one fiction, this one documentary? Bless Their Little Hearts has a specific style and visual approach, while, with And When I Die, the main goal seems to be doing sincere justice to the subject.

I don’t know. Maybe, in a way, they’re two different things. The other thing is that I think it’s maybe about learning the material and finding the best way to express yourself with that material. It’s not about putting some veneer or some flair or whatever on it.

I think it’s quite expressive, and it has its moments of things that I like. It’s not as conventional as it may appear. It uses minimal amounts of materials, but I think it uses them well. I think that to discover that material [we could work with] was part of the joy and also part of the task.

In Bless Their Little Hearts, you’re dealing with one very distinct section of Los Angeles. In And When I Die, you’re dealing with the North Beach scene, in San Francisco; the Village, in New York; and the place of Kaufman’s birth, in New Orleans. What was it like dealing with the added geographical demand — the need to establish three major settings as opposed to just one?

Oh, it’s not so difficult. In fact, it was quite exciting. Maybe not enough of it appears in the film, but I would have been glad to do even more and to be able to find a form that allowed me to use it. But some of it I had to give up, because it’s not useful. I chose other solutions, but that was not so difficult.

Also, I was younger, and you’re always learning. I had some time to think in between [the two projects] and to know something about the possibilities of how you might make a movie like this. Then I had to do it, which is not the same thing. It’s one thing to know it and talk about it and show it and study it and all that. When you’re [actually doing it], it’s quite different.

Are there any movies you’ve tried to make throughout the years that fell through, or that you started on and then, for whatever reason, didn’t finish?

I’ve had that experience, but I don’t dwell too much on that. But maybe I’ll say this one because maybe then somebody else can take it up and do it. I had the idea to make [an adaptation] — my second film was going to be based on a novel by Ernest Gaines called In My Father’s House. It’s a book he wrote in 1978. I had received the rights to the book, and I raised quite a bit of money with the people at American Playhouse. But it turns out I couldn’t raise enough, and I couldn’t do it. This was like the early- or mid-Nineties. I had to give it up.

Then I had to figure out what I could do. I decided that maybe I should start from zero and reteach myself and discover if there’s another way to make something. But I don’t want to lament that. If some of these young guys or young ladies are looking for a great story — that one is still available. It’s a wonderful story of black life and generational issues and conflicts. A beautiful book, a beautiful man, a beautiful writer — and there it is. But, for me, it didn’t happen.

Well, I hope someone takes you up on that.

Yeah, we’ll see. [Laughs]

Speaking of which, are there any young or contemporary filmmakers that you are particularly fond of?

I do keep up with some films. I teach film, so I have to keep up with some young filmmakers. I keep up with my colleagues, with my friends, with what people are doing. I like Tom Edison’s movies; I like Pedro Costa’s movies. I certainly like my friend Charles Burnett’s movies. I like a lot of what cinephile people like. And I like the initiative — the wider things related to film — that some of these young people are doing. I like what Ava DuVernay is doing with her chance, with her opportunity.

I like Kahlil Joseph, who does films with Flying Lotus. He just had an exhibition at MoCA and they asked me if I would come. He’s one of my favorite ones; he’s very promising. I don’t need to tell you that — I’m probably just getting on the “cool list” by saying it, but I like Kahlil Joseph. [Laughs] I like Travis Wilkerson a lot. I like Robert Kramer; I like Abbas Fahdel. I like some filmmakers who are maybe retired now, but they’re my friends, so maybe [I’m] just promoting my friends. [Laughs]

And When I Die, I Won’t Stay Dead screens on Friday, February 19 at 7:30 p.m. at MoMA.

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