To Sleep With Anger (1990)
Written & Directed by Charles Burnett
To Sleep With Anger is a mixture of things. It’s a meditation on modern urban family dynamics. It is a retelling of the Biblical stories all mashed together. The film is an extension of fears about nostalgia, especially in black communities who have lots of moments in history that they reasonably should fear. It’s ultimately hard to classify this picture into a single genre, which is a benefit and a flaw at times.
Gideon and Suzie are an older couple living in South Central Los Angeles. They have two sons Junior and Babe Brother, the eldest being responsible and loyal while the younger is a neglectful father and aimless. Things in their lives take a marked change with the arrival of Harry (Danny Glover), an old friend from back in the American Southeastern region Gideon and Suzie came from. Harry feigns being a reluctant guest for a short while but quickly settles into being a pest. He even begins to influence Babe Brother in all the wrong ways and seems to cause medical problems for Gideon.
Harry is such a subtle character compared to the archetypal Unwelcome Guest audiences are used to. He’s not murderous, or over the top, Harry just knows when to needle someone, how to bring up an anecdote that dredges up old memories and cause general simmering chaos in the household. There is a constant presence of folklore and superstition from black culture. Gideon loses his “tobie,” a lucky charm that belonged to his grandmother, just before Harry arrives. Harry recoils when Gideon’s grandson accidentally brushes the broom across the visitor’s shoes, another superstitious belief.
Harry is based on an African-American folk character of the Hairy Man, a mixture of the Devil and fears of their children being seduced down the wrong path. There is a scene that highlights this tremendously as we watch Gideon, Suzie, and their eldest son’s family attend church watching the baptisms. This is intercut with Harry sitting at the table playing cards with Babe Brother and his family, encouraging the young man to use a marked deck and join him going around the neighborhood swindling people out of their money.
So much of this movie reminded me of David Lynch, where scenes and characters can exist outside the direct context of the overarching plot. Harry seems to amass a collection of elderly crooked men who demand women serve them while they drink to excess. At one point, they try to butcher Gideon’s chickens while the man is stuck in bed, ill. There are strange little details, like a neighbor boy who can’t play the trumpet but insists on going around blow dissonant notes. There are little dream-like asides that serve to convey mood and tone more than propel the plot.
To Sleep With Anger is a late product of the L.A. Rebellion film movement, partially a response to the 1965 Watts Rebellion. Black UCLA film students sought to create a body of cinema that accurately reflected their day to day lives, in the vein of Italian neo-realism. These were movies that showed the grim reality of life in South Central as well as the poetic beauty that existed in lives the power structure attempted to frame as worthless. One of the things this group of filmmakers tried to speak to was how economic conditions kept black artists even more impoverished than their white counterparts to the point they would often have to forsake their art utterly to keep food on the table. Charles Burnett tried to bring elements of black folklore he grew up with having parents from the South and show how those beliefs clashed with the struggling modernity of post-War American urban living.
To Sleep With Anger is not a perfect film, and I think not having a more precise tone hurt my own personal engagement with the picture. It is unlike anything else I have covered in this 1990 flashback. The film is a wholly overlooked gem and reminds us of how often black art is marginalized through the corporate power structure. Burnett did his work outside the studio system, in the same way, a creator like Cassavettes did. Burnett and the work of the L.A. Rebellion are so cast-off in the criticism and reviews I read that I just learned of its existence through this film. I hope to explore more of this artistic movement, especially Burnett’s The Killer of Sheep, later in the year. When you think about the dark path, South Central would be taken down just a year, then something like To Sleep With Anger takes on greater resonance.