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In the Presence of the Past

Kaycee Moore in Billy Woodberry’s Bless Their Little Hearts (1983)

Writing for Reverse Shot in 2006 about Charles Burnett’s debut feature, Killer of Sheep (1977), the “greatest and most heartfelt of all realist American films,” Chris Wisniewski singled out one of the film’s “most enduring moments.” The unnamed wife of a slaughterhouse worker, “wanting nothing more than to feel the admiration of her husband,” checks “her reflection in the cover of a kitchen pot.” On Twitter, where many are sharing another quietly moving scene in which the husband and wife slow dance to Dinah Washington’s “This Bitter Earth,” Burnett remembers Kaycee Moore, who played the wife and who has passed away at the age of seventy-seven, as “one of the most exceptional and unsung actresses I’ve ever worked with.”

Moore appeared in two more landmarks of the movement often referred to as the LA Rebellion. Like Killer of Sheep, Billy Woodberry’s Bless Their Little Hearts (1983), written and shot by Burnett, centers on a struggling Black family in Watts. Moore’s performance as the wife here is “even more heartbreaking,” writes Kathy Fennessy in the Stranger. In Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991), which is set in 1902 on the islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia, Moore plays what ArtsATL’s Steve Murray describes as “a strong-willed woman more than ready to say goodbye to the seaside and superstition and find her way in the modern world.”

In 1999, Moore appeared alongside Isaac Hayes and Martin Sheen in Kevin Willmott’s adaptation of his play, Ninth Street. By this point, Moore had served several years as executive director of the Kansas City chapter of the Sickle Cell Disease Association. In an obituary posted by the city’s Watkins Heritage Chapel, Moore is remembered as “a faithful, spunky, and smart woman whose impact will last a lifetime through her art and memories of all those she loved and who loved her.”

This week’s highlights:

  • In June 2020, Maya Cade started a thread on Twitter to point her followers to readily available films made by Black directors, writers, and producers as well as films whose stories center on characters played by Black actors. The project has expanded to become the Black Film Archive, a winningly designed guide to more than 250 titles released between 1910 and 1979, complete with Cade’s notes on each film and links to the platforms streaming them. “As debates about Black film’s association with trauma rage on,” writes Cade, “I hope the Black Film Archive can offer a different lens through which to understand Black cinematic history, one that takes into consideration the full weight of the past.”

  • The debates Cade mentions have been heating up in the run-up to today’s release of Nia DaCosta’s Candyman, cowritten with and produced by Jordan Peele. The reboot “embodies a constellation of themes, among them trauma, storytelling, and artmaking as a long inheritance forged in Black bloodshed,” writes Kelli Weston at the top of her history of Black horror in the freshly redesigned Sight & Sound. While “it would be impossible to easily encapsulate the Black-authored horror format,” writes Weston, “one major element seems to inform at least the American tradition, to which DaCosta belongs: namely, a preoccupation with spiritual or religious—usually Christian—redemption . . . Quite apart from the moral warfare central to horror, religion becomes more than simply technology wielded against the devious Other, but a space of temporal collapse, where the past links to the present, lore comes alive and the dead are reborn.”

  • Mariam Ghani is a multidisciplinary artist whose father, Ashraf Ghani, was president of Afghanistan from 2014 until about two weeks ago. When the Taliban took over the country the first time in the mid-1990s, they set about destroying works of art, including around three hundred films made during the heyday of the Afghan film industry. Many of these films were straight-up propaganda funded by the communist regimes that governed from 1978 to 1992, but several of them were also a lot of fun. Mariam Ghani’s first feature, What We Left Unfinished, documents the restoration of five of these films, and the sampled clips “provide tantalizing glimpses of a strikingly modern, practically cosmopolitan Afghanistan that’s a stark contrast to the ruins we’ve been seeing on the news for the past two decades,” writes Sean Burns for WBUR. “The movies have an endearingly amateurish quality, while the filmmakers provide hair-raising anecdotes about their productions . . . What We Left Unfinished is about our fundamental yearning to create, and to have your vision seen.”

  • Catherine Grant points us to Nazarbazi, a twenty-minute collage by Maryam Tafakory drawn from eighty-seven films made in Iran between 1982 and 2010 and overlaid with lines written by Forugh Farrokhzad, Ahmad Shamlu, Adonis, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, and herself. In the text that accompanies the audiovisual essay at Film and Video Umbrella, Elhum Shakerifar writes that, watching Nazarbazi, she could sense that “its film-weaver had spent months of the pandemic far from loved ones, in the company of beloved films. In the familiarity of scenes she’d seen hundreds of times, with the comfort of a language—half spoken, half intuited. With cinema—as a space where we touch without touching . . . Through resurrections of words and images of a disembodied past, Tafakory’s homage astutely takes the pulse of this ‘strange time.’”

  • Kristin Thompson has posted the fifteenth annual annotated index to the blog entries that she and David Bordwell have written over the past twelve months. The idea is to point students and casual readers of their classic survey, Film Art: An Introduction, to fresh supplementary reading, chapter by chapter. In Thompson’s most recent entry, she writes about two films made in 1929. Before Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg teamed up for the first time on The Blue Angel the following year, Dietrich starred in Kurt Bernhardt’s “skillful, even flashy” The Woman One Longs for, and von Sternberg made his “marvelous early talkie,” Thunderbolt.

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