To Sleep With Anger (1990)
Dir. Charles Burnett
When Killer of Sheep was ceremoniously re-discovered and released in 2007 with great fanfare, director Charles Burnett had a triumph over obscurity that would be enviable to any living, working filmmaker long relegated to the recesses. It was a success story that felt truly deserved, a bona-fide independent finally finding his place in the pantheon of American filmmakers, and more than a few declaring him the greatest of all African-American filmmakers. Killer of Sheep is indeed quite the achievement, but as with many of the truest of independents, the fanfare was fleeting, and the perception stands that the heroic director of Killer of Sheep is ultimately a tragic case of a filmmaker led astray by obscurity, and worse, a hired hand whenever work presented itself. This, of course, is certainly not the case, and a cursory glance at his career will unveil an unassuming little family tale that is quite possibly one of the finest of American films, To Sleep With Anger.
This is a grand statement, sure, but this unassuming quality of Burnett’s film is exactly what works in its favor, an exterior of a quaint family comedy/drama that contains multitudes lying just beneath its surface. To Sleep With Anger is in its essence one of the great Southern Gothic films, encompassing both a classic tale of good and evil and a family drama firmly rooted in Greek theater, but told in such a deft manner that it never once strays from its humble roots, and more importantly, told with great, lifting humor. It is The Night of the Hunter re-imagined as the blues, its dialogue and imagery rendered not as horror, but instead given a musical quality so deeply ingrained in folklore and a vastly perseverant heritage. Its themes of deeply rooted tradition giving way to a conflicted sense of modernity feels uniquely, unmistakably Southern, and while its action takes place in South Central L.A., To Sleep With Anger never loses that true, evocative sense of Southern culture.
To Sleep With Anger stars Danny Glover, in surely his most magnetic performance, as a man named Harry who drops by unexpectedly to an old acquaintance’s home, where he, Gideon and his wife, Suzie live in their quaint, middle-class home, children grown and living their own middle-class lives in the area. What Harry brings with him are memories of long ago, a wild existence left behind with age by Gideon and Suzie, but held firmly by Harry, a drifter through and through. With these memories come forgotten resentments and insults, however, and while Gideon and Suzie don’t seem to bear any grudges, a few of their life-long friends who made their way out west as well sure do. At the brilliant introduction of Harry in the film, we can sense in one brief moment in the interaction with a very young boy that Harry carries a great weight with him, a weight of great superstition and tenuous grasp of the social niceties. More importantly, there is an air of evil about him, not one of a murderous variety per-se, but one of pure temptation and indulgence, a threat to the comfortable fabric of a family on the surface doing just fine. However, and this is key to the success of this film, this is blatantly false, and Harry’s mere presence brings out something always lying dormant within the dynamics of the family, specifically in the youngest son’s place within, a young man known to his family as Babe Brother, a name he finds degrading and emasculating. Babe Brother proves receptive to the charms of Harry, and Harry brings out in him what he likely once maintained in his earlier life, a sense of choice to stay true to the potential of the solitary man, even if that means leaving his family behind.
I won’t divulge too many of the details of plot in this film, but in many ways, the plot itself is a very familiar one, once again stemming from its classic, theatrical roots. As with any great masterpiece of film, however, the beauty is in the details, and To Sleep With Anger has such an impeccable sense of character and heritage, not to mention geography, that its details really resonate beyond its familiar story. I hesitate to think of many films, for instance, that have such distinct, snappy and resonant dialogue; I had to double-check even that it wasn’t a theatrical adaptation. The dialogue is exhaustive, but never breaks that hallowed “show, don’t tell” rule, as the motivations of the characters’ words often belie their true intent, and in this the visual medium is perfectly attuned to pick up on such details; the face never lies. Charles Burnett crafted a script that could just as easily have been a brilliant piece of writing, but its tempo so beautifully suited for film in the end. It is not a masterpiece of cinematography, but its framing always allows for the details to shine through, whether it be a discreet facial gesture lying on the outskirts of words, or a detail that gives the home a real sense of being lived in, a surprisingly sketchy area in much of filmmaking.
What I of course haven’t touched upon is that To Sleep With Anger is above all else that rare, even to this day, beast in film; a deeply respectful and perceptive film about African-Americans, by an African-American filmmaker. Not only that, but one that doesn’t even come close to calling attention to itself like so many others. It doesn’t exist to be an “important” film, nor does it seem transfixed on the societal struggle so prevalent especially in this era of American film. To Sleep With Anger predates Boyz in the Hood by a year, a markedly much different telling of the South Central experience. This is not to undercut the achievement of that film, as perhaps this even greatly contributes to Anger’s neglected status, given that a subtle family melodrama likely didn’t speak to the volatility that was consuming the area of the time. I’m sure Burnett’s film came across as woefully old-fashioned at the time of its release, especially when played against something like Boyz, or Menace 2 Society a couple of years later, but at the time of this writing, it feels like something equally revolutionary as those films felt on their release, a film that truly speaks to a cultural experience not often tenderly shown in cinema, and more importantly humor that comes from within, and not at the expense of any public perception of such a culture. In short, this is one of the great films about family dynamics, and a stunningly beautiful, graceful ode to a heritage often pushed to the side in film. Yes, Charles Burnett may just be the greatest of African-American filmmakers, but To Sleep With Anger is an achievement that speaks much louder than that designation allows. It’s an American masterpiece.