Every month A Place for Film will bring you a selection of films from our group of regular bloggers. Even though these films aren’t currently being screened at the IU Cinema, this series will reflect the varied programming that can be found at the Cinema, as well as demonstrate the eclectic tastes of the bloggers. Each contributor has picked one film that they saw this month that they couldn’t wait to share with others. Keep reading to find out what discoveries these cinephiles have made, as well as some of the old friends they’ve revisited.
Jack Miller, contributor | Bless Their Little Hearts (1983)
As many people reading this post likely already know, Criterion Channel removed their paywall this month on the works of several important black filmmakers, among them Oscar Micheaux, Cheryl Dunye, and Charles Burnett, in order to raise accessibility and visibility for Black film art. Amid this selection on the channel, simply entitled “Black Lives,” is a lesser known item that impressed me very deeply for the authenticity of its emotions and the honest treatment of a painful subject matter: Billy Woodberry’s Bless Their Little Hearts, from 1983.
This low-budget, independent classic of Black neorealism initially came to my attention because Charles Burnett contributed both the film’s script and cinematography. Certainly, fans of Burnett’s contemporary L.A. Rebellion films such as My Brother’s Wedding (1983), When It Rains (1995), and Killer of Sheep (1977) will find much to admire here. Bless Their Little Hearts deals with the economic desperation and marital disputes of an impoverished California family. About the people being shown in his film, Woodberry has said, “People say [Bless Their Little Hearts] is like a foreign film, it’s like a foreign country. But it’s 20 blocks from their homes and they haven’t been sensitized to want to look at it, to have the curiosity about it and come to know the reality.” Highly recommended.
Jesse Pasternack, contributor | Losing Ground (1982)
Despite not getting a theatrical release until 2015, Losing Ground is now considered a gem of American filmmaking. Written and directed by the trailblazing Kathleen Collins, it is a mesmerizing look at Black American academics and artists in the early 1980s. Like the best classics it is always worth seeking out, but is particularly relevant at certain historical moments, such as our current one.
Collins had a fascinating life. She was an activist in the Civil Rights Movement as well as a playwright who became a film director during her time as a professor of film history and screenwriting at the City College of New York. She died from cancer at the age of 46 but left behind a large body of work that includes an unfinished draft of her first novel Lollie: A Suburban Tale; two books of short stories, plays, and screenplays edited and published posthumously by her daughter Nina Lorez Collins (who used her own money to remaster Losing Ground in 2015); as well as an underrated 54-minute film called The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy (1980). Collins channeled her rich and vibrant life experiences into Losing Ground, which touches on her interests in philosophy and film.
Losing Ground is about Sara Rogers, a philosophy professor at an unnamed college in New York City. Her husband, Victor, is an artist who sells a painting to an important museum. Sara’s new academic research, as well as her relationship with her mother, lead her to act in a student’s short film and pursue a romantically charged relationship with an actor named Duke. Meanwhile, at the house he and Sara are renting for the summer, Victor takes a more than professional interest in a young woman named Celia…
When I first saw Losing Ground at the Black Film Center/Archive in 2018 (the current director, Dr. Terri Francis, appears on the DVD commentary track with Dr. LaMonda Horton-Stallings), I thought it was unlike any film I had seen before. I loved the powerhouse performance Seret Scott gave as Sara, which made me wish that she had been the lead in more films. I also loved that the director of the student film that Sara stars in, the energetic George, felt like someone I would know at IU.
I particularly enjoyed the way that Collins and director of photography Ronald K. Gray (who was once her student at City College) created so many fascinating POV shots. Some examples include one from George’s perspective as he looks through a looking glass and a low-angle shot of Victor looking up at Celia. In addition, Collins threads little idiosyncratic touches throughout her film to make it more true to the minds of her characters.
This quality — of seeming to exist as a broadcast from the mind of its female Black American protagonist — is something that might make it attractive to new viewers at this current historical moment. One result of the wave of protests that have erupted in the wake of the murders of Black Americans such as George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade by police officers has been White Americans seeking out Black history and culture. While many of the TV shows and films that White Americans have sought out are excellent and give valuable information about the history of racism against Black Americans in the United States of America, it is vital that White Americans do not solely consume narratives and images of Black Americans enduring violence and humiliation. Doing so would provide only a small portion of the wealth of history and experiences of Black Americans in this country. White Americans should also seek out more relatively joyful films such as Losing Ground that portray their Black American characters living life in all of the glory of their rich humanity, in their perfections as well as their imperfections, to get a more varied look at the cultural and intellectual lives of Black Americans.
Losing Ground is a beautifully made film, written and directed by a woman who deserves to be widely appreciated as the fascinating pioneer that she was. It is a shame that this film never got theatrical distribution during Collins’s lifetime, but it is available to stream for free on the Criterion Channel until the end of June. I highly recommend that you seek it out, because it is still as technically dazzling and narratively groundbreaking as it was when Collins first made it.
Michaela Owens, Editor | Sammy Davis Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me (2017)
After rewatching Ocean’s 11 (the 1962 original) last month, I was reminded of what a magical entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. was as he easily stole the film away from the likes of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Cesar Romero, and Angie Dickinson. To my delight, I then discovered that Amazon Prime had the PBS American Masters documentary Sammy Davis Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me. I had first seen this film last year and it hadn’t left my mind since. It’s a wonderfully made documentary, as most American Masters entries are, but what really stuck with me was Davis himself. He was a fantastic performer — a perfect impressionist, a gorgeous singer, a great actor, and a magnificent dancer — but he was also one of many Black entertainers in 20th-century America who struggled with intense racism.
As the documentary takes us through Davis’s career, we’re shown how he fit into American history, specifically Black American history. For example, in WWII he was in the first integrated infantry, where he was beaten and terrorized by his fellow soldiers. He received death threats for his romances with White women and for kissing a White actress in the Broadway musical Golden Boy. When he began doing impressions of White movie stars as part of the act he did with his father and godfather, it terrified them because it was a subtle yet dangerous switch on minstrelsy, a horrifically racist type of performance that perpetuates Black stereotypes.
Davis once said that he felt “accepted by the Black race but never the Black community,” a concept that I’ve Gotta Be Me explores as it looks at Davis’s legacy, the mistakes he made, and what he was willing to do to get approval from White audiences, such as the racist jokes he endured from the Rat Pack. Is I’ve Gotta Be Me the most comprehensive documentary it could be? I’ll be honest, it isn’t. But thanks to its use of archival material and the magnetism of its subject, it whets your appetite to learn even more about Davis and encourages you to think about what he experienced as a Black, Jewish man who wanted nothing more than to be seen as simply an entertainer.