• Director: Charles Burnett
  • Writer: Charles Burnett
  • Starring: Danny Glover, Paul Butler, Mary Alice, Richard Brooks, Carl Lumbly, Sheryl Lee Ralph, DeVaughn Nixon, Reina King, Vonetta McGee, and Wonderful Smith
  • Accolades: 2019 Slate Black Film Canon, 1990 Sundance Film Festival – Special Jury Prize, 4 Independent Spirit Awards (Best Director – Charles Burnett, Best Male Lead – Danny Glover, Best Supporting Female – Sheryl Lee Ralph. Best Screenplay)
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming (with cable subscription) on TCM App, buy or rent with Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

After watching To Sleep With Anger, I’m not sure if it’s a masterpiece or not. On one level it is sort of deceptively simple, but on another there are so many interesting themes flying around that any one of them might get lost in the shuffle. It is a movie that starts out seeming to take place in reality, but before long Danny Glover is doing some sort of ritual with a chicken and as seemingly banal a source as the Turner Classic Movies synopsis asks, “is he an evil spirit?” Suburban LA is not known as a setting for Magical Realism, but that is what we have here: a story in which nothing overtly fantastical occurs but which only makes any sense if you view it through the lens that there is some sort of weird magic occurring.

Paul Butler and Mary Alice play an older Black couple who moved many decades earlier to Los Angeles from “back home,” implied to be somewhere in the Deep South. In the midst of suburbia, they still raise corn and chickens in their backyard. They have two adult sons, Junior, the older brother (Carl Lumbly), and Samuel, or “Babe Brother” (Richard Brooks), who is something of the black sheep of the family, and both brothers have families of their own. Then, a teapot suddenly falls off of the fridge and breaks, and in the next scene, Harry (Glover), suddenly arrives on their doorstep, and things seem to go awry from there.

Harry is an old friend from “back home,” and immediately welcomed by the couple, but his influence seems to be negative somehow. They are very religious, but he is more devoted to old customs. Everything seems to be either good or bad luck. He seems to be, we realize, an old-fashioned trickster. Samuel’s marriage is going south fast, while Harry tells him that “where I come from, no real man has only one woman.” Then the father, Gideon, gets very sick and may die. Harry helps out around the house in his place. His wife treats him with folk remedies at Harry’s suggestion, and when the preacher at their church (Wonderful Smith) arrives to pray over Gideon he admonishes her. Harry’s visit, originally supposedly a brief rest between legs of a bus journey, seems to stretch on and on. Eventually, the mother asks him, “are you a friend, Harry?” His reply: “The boy next door who practices the trumpet every day, he would be a friend if he stopped because we wouldn’t have to listen anymore, but if he stopped practicing he would never be perfect at what he does one day.” That’s not an answer, Harry.

At the climax, the two brothers, Junior and Samuel, get in a fight over a knife during a thunderstorm, and accidentally cut their mother’s hand. During the long wait at the ER, the storm seems to dissipate, along with the tensions in the family. When they get home, Harry says he’s “just there to get his stuff,” but then suddenly slips on a bunch of marbles and dies. There is a bizarrely long coda where they wait for the coroner to show up, and he keeps calling them saying he “doesn’t know when” he’ll be there, while Harry’s body is still in the kitchen. Over the end credits, the boy next door (played by director Charles Burnett’s son) is suddenly good at playing the trumpet.

Charles Burnett is listed among the great American directors surprisingly often these days, but I have a feeling that most people, even people who are into movies and watch most of the Oscar contenders every year, have never seen one of his movies. Having grown up in Black neighborhoods of Los Angeles, most of his movies are set there. He went to UCLA Film School in the same class as several other Black filmmakers, including Larry Clark, Julie Dash, Haile Gerima, and Billy Woodberry. This group became known as the “Black Independent Movement,” or, as they perhaps preferred to be called, the “L.A. Rebellion.” Burnett’s thesis film, Killer of Sheep, is often listed as an essential early American independent film. To Sleep With Anger, made 12 years later, was his first film with a decent-sized budget, and also his first to feature a cast entirely of professional actors.

There are a lot of different, interesting themes flying around in this movie, but they are just under the surface. It is about generation gaps, the rural past versus the urban future, about the conflict between organized religion and tradition. Samuel is in conflict with his parents because they always drilled into him that “idleness is sin,” but now his father shouts at him if he and his wife both have to work late and leave his son (DeVaughn Nixon) with them into the evening. He’s supposed to work all the time, just not like that, apparently. For his part, is Harry just a guy, or is he some sort of devil, or is he somehow the family’s savior? He even dies at the end, is it for their sins? If you’re waiting for the movie to actually answer these questions, it’s not going to. It presents events, and we’re left on our own to interpret them.

In the end, I’m not sure it hangs together. Some critics at the movie’s release in 1990 thought the same. Entertainment Weekly called it “overly ambitious.” This is a movie that brings up a lot of questions, but as I said I’m not sure it’s interested in answering them. Do any of the things that happen here actually add up to a movie? I’m really not sure. Maybe I’ll end on the opening credits, which for some reason are played over images of Paul Butler, who plays the dad, in the same pose as a woman in a painting behind him, while a still life of grapes and half-cut apples on the table beside him slowly catches on fire. What does this mean? I have no idea. Except that the whole movie is like that.

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