To Sleep with Anger (Charles Burnett, 1990)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents To Sleep with Anger.

Charles Burnett crafts a masterpiece of independent cinema with To Sleep with Anger, a magical realist exploration of a black middle-class family living in South Central Los Angeles. Family tensions are already simmering in the household of Gideon (Paul Butler) and Suzie (Mary Alice) when their old friend Harry Mention (Danny Glover in arguably his greatest performance) turns up on their doorstep unannounced looking for hospitality and a temporary roof over his head. Reminding them of their Southern roots, Gideon and Suzie cannot refuse his request but when Gideon mysteriously suffers from an unexpected stroke, Harry’s easy charm gives way to a malevolent spell that provokes turmoil throughout the family, setting son against son and reviving past hatreds. Burnett reveals himself as not just the master of poetic urban realism that created his classic first film, Killer of Sheep, but an expert interpreter of African-American folk culture and one of the great chroniclers of the American experience.

Disc Features:

  • 4K digital transfer, approved by director Charles Burnett, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • The Trouble with Harry, an introduction by director Ernest Dickerson
  • New interviews with Burnett and actors Glover, Alice, Sheryl Lee Ralph, and Carl Lumbly
  • Trailer
  • PLUS: An essay by critic Andrew Chan

In the pantheon of great American filmmakers, Charles Burnett may be its least seen director. His UCLA thesis film Killer of Sheep (1978), an episodic, impressionistic survey of African-American life in L.A.’s Watts district told in a neorealist style, declared Burnett as a key figure in the L.A. Rebellion film movement and initiated his legacy as a sophisticated storyteller of the black experience, however few of his films are known, let alone actually seen, by the film-going public (and that includes Killer of Sheep). Part of Burnett’s mainstream obscurity likely rests in his resistance to portraying African-Americans in the contexts of crime and drugs that frequently dominate Hollywood cinema and on his insistence in keeping his films in the vernacular of black America. His movies offer a complexity of character and community missing in commercial cinema and that demands more than passive commodification and consumption. This ethic is clearly observable in Burnett’s other masterpiece To Sleep with Anger (1990), his third feature and his first working with professional actors. In the film, an older couple, Gideon and Suzie (Paul Butler and Mary Alice) host an old friend, Harry Mention (Danny Glover), who brings with him a Southern charm and a slyly malicious influence. When Gideon suffers a mysterious stroke while out with Harry, their guest inveigles himself into the role of household patriarch and begins to corrupt the younger of Gideon and Suzie’s two adult sons, Babe Brother (Richard Brooks), causing tensions to rise further.

Great art is about revealing possibilities and Burnett’s films have always distinguished themselves for revealing a black America too infrequently seen onscreen. To Sleep with Anger considers the Second Great Migration from a contemporary vantage point, examining through Gideon and Suzie the lives of the five million African-Americans who began leaving the South in 1940 and settling elsewhere (California in this case). The film not only considers the legacy of this transplanted Southern history in its new environs but also its relationship (or lack thereof) to subsequent generations growing up in a different time and place. Burnett says it best:

In L.A. the whole community, from the ’40s, ’50s, up until about the Civil Rights movement, was a community composed of people from Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, and places like that. Actually, it was unusual to find someone who was born in California. You really had that Southern vibe there, the folkways and the culture were there in Los Angeles—people used to raise chickens in their backyard, and everybody knew one another. But all that has changed. There were a lot of positive things then, because there was an ethos, a certain way of conducting yourself and a culture that was nurturing. Something like that really helps to inform you about the world in a poetic way—it gives you a sort of moral insight into life and when you get older, you might appreciate that more. It seeps into your unconscious. There’s always been this issue of the black middle class’s responsibility to continue to be a force in the black community. One of To Sleep with Anger’s themes deals with that issue, of the middle class abandoning the rest of the race, deserting the culture and then returning to it. The film is really about connecting the past to the present.

To Sleep with Anger is often mistakenly considered as arranged around a series of dichotomies centred around the old South vs. the new West (mysticism vs. religion, family/community vs. upward mobility, folk remedies vs. medicine) but the film actually concerns itself with the coexistence and ambivalences of the two worlds. Gideon and Suzie still raise chickens in their backyard, still keep tobys (amulets of good luck), and still employ Plummer Christian leaves, cold oil, and cow tea to cure ailments, but the 30 years that separate them from Harry is still indicative of an alienation from their Southern past, something most greatly evidenced by the resentment expressed by Babe and his professional wife Linda (Sheryl Lee Ralph) toward the rest of the family.

Burnett expresses the film’s Southern past and its California present by its material reality, in fish frys, church services, and card games. It is a subtle and sophisticated approach, although not as audacious as To Sleep with Anger‘s use of horror genre syntax. Glover’s Harry Mention is a Mississippi Mr. Scratch, a charismatic devil enticing those around him to ruin rather than harming them directly. With his genteel demeanour, his impish smile, and his stories of down-home violence at the end of a switch-knife, Harry is something of a Southern return of the repressed that while monstrous is also rather refreshing, an anti-Magical Negro with little interest in altruism or self-sacrifice. Suzie’s friend Hattie (Ethel Ayler in a wonderful performance) recognizes Harry’s contradictions: “Back home, Harry always did try to act like the colored gentleman. But he’s evil.” Burnett based Harry Mention on Hairyman, a traditional trickster who offers your heart’s desire in exchange for your soul and who must be later outsmarted by his victim. To Sleep with Anger contains Harry’s monstrous threat by a combination of ambivalent strategies characteristic to the film, with Babe Brother reconciling family values over ambitious careerism and Suzie foregoing Southern hospitality to (nearly) exorcise Harry from their home. Harry still manages to linger due to a lengthy wait for an ambulance, a rare commentary on American racism in this nearly all-black film that focuses upon the disparity in public services between the African-American community and others.

Burnett’s talent for realism and naturalism grounds To Sleep with Anger, making its magical realist moments all the more enticing. At times, Burnett explores moments of near fantasy, from a vision of African-American railway labourers that presage Gideon’s stroke to the film’s opening dream sequence set to Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s cover of “Precious Memories.” In this heavily symbolic and utterly enthralling prologue, a man in a sharp silver suit sits impassively next to a portrait and bowl of fruit, unconcerned by the fires that spontaneously ignite on and around him. Considered more broadly, To Sleep with Anger strays from the naturalist desire for continuity by employing a narrative looseness that relies on ellipses to move between scenes, often without context for why characters appear in a given locale or how a scene manages to escalate into tension or violence. In fact, it is sometimes difficult to discern the passage of time or to make assessments of how long Harry’s visit exactly lasts. It is reflective of an openness in Burnett’s story and his resistance to putting too fine a point on who his characters are or how they should be judged. It is an ambivalence sewn into the film’s fabric that is essential to reconciling Harry’s negative influence against his ultimately positive effect of bringing the family and the community closer together through his vanquishing.

To Sleep with Anger was based on Burnett’s memories of Southern black folklore and was something of a passion project, but the production proved difficult. The film started as project with PBS but the broadcaster’s pressure on Burnett to lessen the film’s cultural specificity and pursue a wider, more mainstream audience resulted in a difficult and resentful parting that left Burnett demoralized and at financial “rock bottom.” A MacArthur grant and the involvement of Danny Glover buoyed the production, allowing Burnett to raise $1.4 million and complete the film through various producers like Cotty Chubb and Ed Pressman. Burnett is proud of the film’s 12 credited producers. While sometimes cited as something of a joke by commentators and critics, Burnett sees a community of supporters necessary for the film’s creation. Unfortunately, To Sleep with Anger failed to make money behind The Samuel Goldwyn Company’s ineffective marketing of the film, never showing it in more than 18 theatres on its initial release. Still, the film won four Independent Spirit Awards, Best Screenplay from the National Society of Film Critics, a Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, and was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry in 2017.

Most hard media editions of To Sleep with Anger are now out of print, but the film has been rumoured for some time as a potential addition for the Criterion Collection on the back of its restoration a couple of years ago. With Milestone Films having already released Killer of Sheep and other works of the director and the distributor currently working on a new interpositive and internegative of Burnett’s short When It Rains (1995), To Sleep with Anger does look like the next likely candidate for a Charles Burnett film in the Collection. It would be a key additional to Criterion as it would expand its limited library of African-American cinema and confirm a highly deserving filmmaker to its canon of legendary directors. For a cover treatment to an imagined edition, we propose artist and illustrator Kadir Nelson, an incredibly talented artist whose interest in African-American culture and history perfectly intersects with Charles Burnett and To Sleep with Anger. Nelson’s Second Line looks like a scene taken straight out To Sleep with Anger, sharing the image of a young boy alone playing his trumpet.

Credits: Director and cinematographer Ernest Dickerson was chosen to provide an introduction to this imagined edition of To Sleep With Anger given his Trailers From Hell discussion on the film. Andrew Chan was chosen to provide our imagined essay given his proximity to the Criterion Collection and his 2016 interview with Burnett on the occasion of a week long run of To Sleep with Anger at the Film Society of Lincoln Centre. The cover synopsis is based on two different hard media summaries, along with some choice words lifted from Andrew Chan.

This post was assisted by a number of writings including Chuck Bowen’s overview for Slant Magazine, Brandon Wilson’s article for IndieWire, Marilyn Ferdinand’s review for Ferdy on Films, Melissa Anderson’s review for The Village Voice, Nelson Kim’s interview of Charles Burnett for Senses of Cinema, Ray Carney’s consideration of Burnett and To Sleep with Anger, Na Ma’s discussion of folklore in the film, and Audrey Colombe’s discussion of the Magical Negro trope for Jump Cut. Shout out to Alex Cox and his interview of Charles Burnett for Film Comment, and so MMC! throws in Cox’s interview of the film for Moviedrome! And one last shout out to Black Space Winnipeg and its Afro Prairie Film Festival that screened To Sleep with Anger earlier this year with Burnett in attendance – a great evening.

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