Bless Their Little Hearts similarly leads with an insistence on the quotidian, the interior, the quiet. Like Adam, the main character, Charlie, falls into a listless existence as he is unable to secure full-time employment. Shot in black and white in Watts by Charles Burnett (who also wrote the screenplay), the filmic geography is marked by the wreckages of American industrial decay, urban relics of neoliberalism’s weakening of trade unions, and exportation of manufacturing jobs. Hollowed-out factories, rusting train tracks, and empty transport carriages litter the cinematic frame and, in one short extraordinary scene in which Charlie rides silently in a car, serve as a ghostly window backdrop, visually punctuating his downcast expression.
A predominantly Black neighborhood at the time of the film’s production, Watts is the product of racial segregationist policies that concentrated Black working-class labor in the 1940s to fuel the growth of defense industries. The area erupted during the Watts Rebellion in 1965 in response to police brutality, social alienation, and systemic poverty. The film’s setting in Watts thus speaks to an anti-Black past that refuses to pass, of an embattled zone in which racialized residents perpetually lie prone to structural unemployment, physical injury, and unhygienic settlement—in other words, are forced to endure a “slow death”5 or “social death.”6 This climate of anti-Black violence, which is curiously diffuse and necessarily eludes visual representation, seeps into Charlie’s life and affects his interactions with others. At the beginning of the film, he wanders about in a job center—unsurprisingly full of Black and Brown individuals—while filling out a bureaucratic form. He stops by a wall sign that reads, “Are You Interested in a Casual Labor Job? (Half Day, One Day, Two Day, Three Day-Only Jobs).” Charlie takes note of the contact number provided on the sign and finds himself performing a myriad of odd jobs—painting a house, cutting weeds, fishing, and so on—giving rise to the film’s loose, irregular rhythm.
Meanwhile, his wife, Andais, works a full-time job and comes home to Charlie and their three kids, whom she must cook for and look after. The expropriated labor power Andais sells at work and the unremunerated reproductive labor she performs at home take a toll on her body and psyche. Riding on the bus from work, she struggles to stay awake; while arguing with Charlie, who begins to cheat and gamble, she repeatedly utters, “I’m tired!” When Charlie tugs at her arm late at night in their bed as he smokes his cigarette, she refuses his advances by appearing fast asleep. Near the end of the film, after one of their daughters breaks her arm, Charlie breaks down crying at the dinner table, wishing that the family “lived in a better neighborhood.” Andais gently walks across the table, massages Charlie’s shoulders and consoles him, telling him that it’s going to be OK. While Andais does seem to care for Charlie, the viewer is left wondering whether her act of consolation is a performance of affective labor, one that begrudgingly serves to manage Charlie’s failure to live up to the patriarchal ideal as a breadwinning father. The desire for patriarchal normalcy is depicted in an earlier scene when, without any dialogue at all but merely through an exchange of gazes and gestures, Andais stealthily hands over cash from her wallet to Charlie in the corridor. Charlie walks into the living room and gives each of his three children the cash, as church offerings, as if the money were his. Woodberry’s remarkable direction thus works to reveal the nuances between Charlie and Andais’s inner lives, which inevitably are modulated but not determined by the differential of gender.
The power of A Screaming Man and Bless Their Little Hearts lies in their striking ability to balance sociopolitical decay and existential ennui with the open-ended suggestion of otherwise possibilities. These are possibilities encased within the moving image that are unlocked through poeticism and abstraction, both formal techniques and sensibilities that are better suited to attuning viewers to the lower frequencies of the quiet.7 For example, although Charlie performs a variety of jobs throughout Woodberry’s film, these scenes of aestheticized manual labor take the viewer out of linear time, encouraging alternative modalities of perception that strikingly speak against Charlie’s narrative struggle. In one quiet, meditative scene, Charlie carefully removes the graffiti from a wooden shed by painting it white. Alternating between distant and close-up shots, the viewer observes Charlie at work, the beauty of his solitary physical exertion leading one to imagine that this could be Charlie’s house, that he is engaging in a leisurely, nonalienating act of maintenance on his own property. In another scene without dialogue, Charlie works on a field with a few other Black men. Burnett’s camerawork transforms the field’s extensive branches, which fill the entirety of the screen with glinting lines. The lines obscure the men’s laboring bodies, forming a defamiliarized abstract composition enabled by the interplay of light, shadow, and movement.
In Haroun’s film, the cinematographer, Laurent Brunet, invites viewers to feel and think by nondiscursive means—where interiority resides—via his careful handling of color and light. In the last scene, dripping with pulchritude, a shallow lake appears and fills the frame, its almost silvery surface tinted with the ochre haze of the Saharan sky. Adam walks into the frame, causing greater ripples in the water, his figure entirely backlit like a wandering shadow. The camera moves patiently with Adam’s reserved steps, the illumined surface of the lake changing from ochre to a pinkish sienna to navy blue and, finally, fading into pitch blackness. The destination to which Adam’s quiet walk is directed remains undisclosed, not unlike Charlie’s concluding solitary walk in a grass field. The articulate inarticulateness of these two films evidences their critical engagement with the reticent aesthetic of the Black interior, of an inner life that can only ever be “approximated, hinted at, implied.”