The neo-neorealist masterworks Killer of Sheep (1977) by Charles Burnett and Bless Their Little Hearts (1983) by Billy Woodberry both explore a superficially simple subject: what it means to be a man, a woman, a child just barely eking out a marginally comfortable existence in Watts, the impoverished South Los Angeles district that had long been predominantly African American. Coming after the blaxploitation craze of the early to mid-Seventies and before the in-the-’hood phase of the early Nineties, these two movies are quietly revolutionary in their focus on quotidian details, each forgoing cartoonish violence and brazen caricature for the complexity and nuance of everyday interactions. Such an approach, so crucial to Barry Jenkins’s depiction of Miami’s Liberty City in Moonlight, remains rare, radical still.
Although Burnett’s Killer of Sheep — which Milestone released nationwide in 2007, giving it a thirty-years-delayed proper theatrical run — is probably better known than Woodberry’s Bless Their Little Hearts, neither film can be, or has been, revived often enough. They are companion pieces of a sort, each made by an alum of the UCLA Film School; Burnett received his MFA in 1977, Woodberry in ’82. They, along with Julie Dash (1991’s Daughters of the Dust, revived last year) and Haile Gerima (1975’s Bush Mama, which screened at MoMA last month as part of the series “Making Faces on Film”), are the most eminent members of the L.A. Rebellion movement, the name given to the constellation of black auteurs who studied in the UCLA film program between the late 1960s and the late ’80s.
Beyond probing a similar theme, Killer of Sheep and Bless Their Little Hearts share not only formal elements (they’re both shot on 16mm black-and-white and enhanced by supernal soundtracks dense with blues, jazz, and gospel) but also cast and crew members; notably, Burnett, who wrote, directed, lensed, and edited his own film, provided the screenplay and served as cinematographer for Woodberry’s. Yet each work in this diptych stands on its own.
Burnett’s debut feature, which also doubled as his MFA thesis film, unfolds as a series of loose episodes centering on Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), an abattoir employee weighed down by a sadness he can’t explain. “I’m working myself into my own hell,” Stan tells a buddy as the two men sit at the kitchen table of the spartanly furnished home he shares with his wife (Kaycee Moore) and kids (Jack Drummond and Angela Burnett, the director’s niece). Stan can’t sleep (“I’m always awake”). His spouse can’t remember the last time she saw him smile.
Stan’s anhedonia eases on occasion: A cuddle with his daughter brings unalloyed delight. The slaughterhouse worker seems to relax while dancing with his wife, though he pulls away after she communicates her desire for him — one of several instances in which her carnal overtures are spurned, the rejection made all the more stinging by Moore’s talent for shading her character’s hurt with an ineffaceable dignity.
The song the spouses have been swaying to before Stan breaks free is Dinah Washington’s “This Bitter Earth.” The gutting jazz ballad also scores one of the episodes of Stan at work, where he carries out a multitude of gruesome tasks: skinning, bloodletting, pushing a wheelbarrow full of ovine innards. Stan’s occupation undeniably contributes to the unbearable heaviness of being he weathers. Yet the job, no matter how much he wants to leave it, gives him a measure of stability unknown to the guys (among the scores of effortlessly charismatic nonprofessionals in the film) who stop by the house, proposing schemes and side-hustles, some at the extreme end of illegal. “I ain’t poor. I give away things to the Salvation Army sometimes,” the laborer insists, turning down one of these opportunities, his response illuminating the infinite intricacies of class.
Through its collection of loose, detail-rich vignettes, Killer of Sheep remains sharply, but never didactically, attuned to the steady psychic corrosion caused by economic uncertainty. Just as expertly, Burnett captures the activities of children — those residents of Watts who, though bound by arbitrary rules, still enjoy anarchic freedom. Killer of Sheep is punctuated and vivified by scenes of kids, often in groups and filmed from different angles, at play: boys horsing around down by the railroad tracks; small figures, shot from below, jumping from roof to roof; two preadolescent girls practicing the bump in a dirt alley. Burnett records these guileless performers with deepest empathy and no small amount of wonder. As we watch Angela Burnett, sitting on a clothes-strewn floor, serenade a baby doll while singing joyously off-key to Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Reasons,” the buoyant moment contrasts with, but is never overwhelmed by, a brutal truth we later hear Washington sing: “Today you’re young/Too soon you’re old.”
Two years later, Angela Burnett would star as another self-possessed child in Bless Their Little Hearts, which Woodberry began filming in 1979 and completed in ’83. She plays the oldest of the three Banks children (her siblings are portrayed by her real-life younger brother and baby sister), who share with their parents a dwelling more cramped than the one in Killer of Sheep. Also reprising a role similar (if only nominally so) to the one she had in Killer of Sheep is Kaycee Moore, here as Andais, the matriarch of the Banks family and the increasingly beleaguered wife of Charlie (Nate Hardman), a man we first see painstakingly filling out forms in an unemployment office.
Despite Burnett’s significant involvement in the project, he did not interfere with the vision of his younger friend and colleague (Burnett was born in 1944, Woodberry in ’48). According to Milestone’s comprehensive press notes for Bless Their Little Hearts, Burnett’s original scenario paid particular attention to Charlie’s spiritual crisis. The film that Woodberry made (which he also edited) anatomizes instead the fissures in Charlie and Andais’s relationship, the gulf between them widening during a phenomenal ten-minute scene that lays bare, with raw power and not a trace of sentimentality, their profound hurt and disappointment in each other, sorrow not always of their own making. While both Killer of Sheep and Bless Their Little Hearts revolve around a paterfamilias, one only somewhat more financially secure than the other, Woodberry’s movie provides the richer part for Moore. “I don’t know what’s wrong with everybody. But now you know what’s wrong with me,” Andais tells Charlie as their fight reaches its denouement. As voiced by Moore, Andais’s pain and frustration are always concrete, never vague. The same is true of these two indispensable works of American cinema.
Killer of Sheep
Written and directed by Charles Burnett
Opens May 17, IFC Center
Bless Their Little Hearts
Directed by Billy Woodberry
Opens May 17, IFC Center