To Sleep with Anger (1990)
Directed by: Charles Burnett.
Written by: Charles Burnett.
Starring: Danny Glover (Harry), Paul Butler (Gideon), DeVaughn Nixon (Sonny), Mary Alice (Suzie), Reina King (Rhonda), Cory Curtis (Skip), Richard Brooks (Babe Brother), Sherul Lee Ralph (Linda), Carl Lumbly (Junior), Vonetta McGee (Pat).
Charles Burnett’s debut film – Killer of Sheep (1978) is one of the great American films of the 1970s – but it took a good 30 years for it to get its due. The music rights – which Burnett didn’t bother to clear when he made the film as a student – made releasing the film impossible, so while anyone who had seen the film loved it, that number wasn’t very large until those issues were finally resolved, and the film got proper attention. It is often referred to as an American neo-realist film, and the film certainly does capture some of the same sort of feeling of the films of Vittorio De Sica or Roberto Rossellini, there is also something somewhat otherworldly about the film. Burnett’s To Sleep with Anger – his third film, made 12 years after Killer of Sheep – takes this mixture of realism with the fantastical to even greater extremes. It isn’t the perfect film that Killer of Sheep was – but it’s still fascinating – a modern day Parable set in Burnett’s Los Angeles.
The film is about Gideon (Paul Butler) and Suzie (Mary Alice) – transplants from the Deep South, now living in Los Angeles. They have two sons – Junior (Carl Lumbly), more mature and stable, and Babe Brother (Richard Brooks), immature and entitled – with a wife, Rhonda (Reina King), who looks down on her Southern in-laws – so much so that she stays in the car in the driveway during Sunday dinner, but not enough to not let them constantly babysit her son until late into the night. The family puts on a happy face, but there are cracks under the surface – cracks that gradually become exposed with the arrival of Harry (Danny Glover).
Harry is an old friend from the South – he hasn’t seen Gideon or Suzie in decades – since they left – yet when he arrives, he is greeted with open arms, and an offer to stay as long as he likes. Harry seems nice – he’s friendly, he’s quick with a story and a laugh – and everyone seems to love him. But right from the start, there is something vaguely sinister about Harry, and there are questions about him you cannot help but wonder – logistical questions about how he knew when Gideon and Suzie were, and why he decided to show up out of the blue for the first time in decades. As the movie progresses, Harry goes from genial to passive aggressive – he almost takes over the house in his seemingly friendly way, bossing people around as he clips his toenails in the middle of the living room, leads Gideon on a walk, which provides him with visions, and leads to a stroke and Gideon in a coma, and leading the weak willed Babe Brother down the path of temptation. He has many people fooled, but not Linda (Sheryl Lee Ralph) – an old girlfriend of his from those back home days, who very quickly knows Harry hasn’t changed, and shows that Harry isn’t the only one who can tell stories that make everyone uncomfortable. What Harry really is – who he represents – is never explicitly made clear, but if he isn’t Satan, he’s at least on a first name basis with him.
All of this leads to a climax that is straight out of the bible, and a denouement that is both abrupt and hilarious – putting a happy face on everything, although whether it’s a legitimate happy ending or just a family agreement to go back to pretending is open from debate.
There is much to admire about To Sleep with Anger – not least of which is the best performance of Danny Glover’s career (it even somehow fits to have Glover be younger in real life than Harry is clearly supposed to be). It’s hard to hate Harry, who seems so genial, so happy, and is never overtly threatening, even if he is also undeniably the cause of the family almost being broken apart. Other performances in the film are good as well – particularly Mary Alice, so outwardly sweet and polite, masking something stronger inside, Sheryl Lee Ralph – hilarious and tough as nails as the only one who sees through Harry from the start and Richard Brooks as the overgrown child Babe Brother – the one who actually does need to grow the hell up.
The film has a tricky tone that is all Burnett’s own. There are large family gatherings that have the feeling of authenticity to them – especially the large fish fry gathering, in which Harry breaks out the corn liquor. But there is also the undeniable feeling of the supernatural hanging over the whole movie – and just waiting to drop. I do think Burnett probably waits a little too long for it to drop – and the movie can be a little too repetitive leading up to the climax.
Still, To Sleep with Anger is rare for an American film of its time (and sadly, would still be rare for an American film of this time) in its depiction of an African American family – the roots of the past coming to haunt the present, and how the film was clearly made without a white audience in mind (there is no code switching here). Burnett should be a figure in American film on par with Spike Lee – but he’s always struggled to get his films made, and struggled to get his films seen once they have been (To Sleep with Anger is not the easiest film to track down). That really does need to change.