Skip to Content

The Voice and Vision of Billy Woodberry

View Upcoming Films

Streamed February 17 through February 23

Encapsulating the art and wisdom of Billy Woodberry, this series of four films features his classic mid-1980s Bless Their Little Hearts. “Just the blues and Brecht,“ as he observes, the film is an essential work of Los Angeles cinema, informed by Italian neorealism and filmmaking traditions from Brazil, Cuba, India, and Africa. Woodberry also teaches film at the California Institute of the Arts.

Marseille après La Guerre

While researching the history of the National Maritime Union, Woodberry came across a fascinating trove of photographs of dockers in Marseille, France, from the 1940s. With these grainy black-and-white images, his short film evokes “solidarity, fraternity, and struggle” among stevedores just after the end of World War II: Black men and white men working and relaxing alongside one another. This collection of stills—coupled with a complex soundtrack that includes Woodberry’s narration—is a stunning homage to renowned Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembène, who also worked on the docks of Marseille after the war and based his 1954 novel Docker Noir on those formative experiences. (2015, 10 minutes)

And when I die I won’t stay dead

Beat poet Bob Kaufman was a compelling figure in mid-twentieth-century America, performing in coffeehouses and on the street. New Orleans–born, jazz-influenced, nomadic, and mystifying, this key African American poet spent most of his unsettled life in San Francisco, where the bookstore City Lights recognized his brilliance and published his work. As its cofounder Lawrence Ferlinghetti noted, “No one else talked like him. No one else wrote poetry like him.” And when I die I won’t stay dead captures Kaufman’s vitality and intensity though archival photos, footage, interviews, and readings. In a meandering progression, Woodberry’s documentary charts the poet’s origins, connections with labor struggles and human injustices after World War II, blossoming in San Francisco’s bohemia, and relocation to Greenwich Village at the start of the 1960s folk scene. (2015, 89 minutes)

The Pocketbook

Adapting Langston Hughes’ story Thank You, Ma’am, in which a young boy comes to question his willful actions, this early short focuses on the power of forgiveness and second chances. Produced in black-and-white 16mm during Woodberry’s time as a UCLA student, The Pocketbook features music by Leadbelly, Thelonius Monk, and Miles Davis. (1980, 13 minutes)

Bless Their Little Hearts

A pivotal work of the filmmaking school known as the LA Rebellion, Bless Their Little Hearts—directed and produced by Woodberry, scripted and shot by Charles Burnett—is arguably the finest example of the neorealist aesthetic in American cinema. The story of working-class Charlie Banks (Nate Hardman) and his family in South Los Angeles, trying to cope with underemployment, spiritual collapse, and conditions beyond their control, is bolstered by brilliantly gut-wrenching performances from Hardman and Kaycee Moore as his wife. At its center is a painful confrontation between the couple, shot in one continuous 10-minute take, that ranks as “one of the great domestic cataclysms of modern movies” (critic Richard Brody). Nominated in 2013 to the National Film Registry, the film was preserved and restored with assistance from Woodberry at the UCLA Film & Television Archive and released by Milestone. (1984, 86 minutes)

Become a National Member Today!

Help support film programs like these and join your National Gallery of Art for as little as $50 to enjoy an array of benefits that bring you closer to the art than ever before.