Director: Charles Burnett
Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists
Los Angeles, 1990. A middle class African-American family. Junior (the eldest son) and his wife attend a prenatal class. Babe Brother (the youngest son) leaves his son in the care of Gideon and Suzie (the parents). Babe Brother forgets his mother’s birthday, causing arguments between Babe Brother and Junior. An old friend of Gideon’s and Suzie’s from the South, Harry, is passing through but Gideon invites him to stay, which he does so for several weeks. Harry meets Hattie, an ex-lover perhaps in the South. Reminding her of their past, Hattie informs him she’s been saved since by religion.
Gideon criticises Babe Brother for neglecting his child and leaving him with them. Gideon soon falls ill and becomes comatose. Harry asserts himself more prominently in the house, almost as a surrogate patriarch. Babe Brother and Harry spend more time together, which causes arguments between Babe Brother and his wife. Babe Brother hits her. She leaves to stay with Junior and his wife. Hattie tells Suzie that Harry spreads bad luck. Babe Brother and Junior have a violent disagreement and Suzie is injured during the scuffle. The family are brought closer together by this. Harry collapses in the kitchen and dies when they return, after which Gideon makes a full recovery.
Charles Burnett’s brand of African-American cinema couldn’t be any more different than the more prominent examples from the blaxploitation and inner city ghetto genres. His interests are observing the African-American middle classes based around the family unit; their trials and tribulations, their values and sense of solidarity. Although ‘Killer of Sheep’ is his best known film, ‘To Sleep With Anger’ is perhaps his most interesting. It considers the impact that a mysterious stranger has upon a family that is respectable enough on the surface but has potential tensions that are yet to be explored. The device of a figure spreading a malign influence upon a family has been used numerous times in cinema, notably in Pasolini’s ‘Teorema’ or even Hitchcock’s ‘Shadow of a Doubt’. The issue is whether the figure is completely responsible for the chaos that begins after his arrival or whether his arrival merely exposes what was already there.
Harry, as performed by Danny Glover, is charming yet mysterious and his charisma allows him to work his way into the family. Gideon and Suzie have not seen him for the best part of thirty years and since they last met their lives have changed dramatically. Gideon and Suzie are much like Burnett’s own parents who moved from Mississippi to California, and they’ve become successful, however the memories of the past can still be recalled. These memories are made more vivid by Harry’s arrival. One imagines that Harry probably never left the ‘Old South’. He still retains the values and superstitions of a bygone era. He keeps a rabbit’s foot that his mother gave him, he brings corn liquor, the taste of the ‘Real South’ to a party and he chastises Babe Brother’s son for touching him with a broom. Harry sticks to his own moral code, exclaiming “you folks sure got some strange ways” in reference to the family’s new middle class status.
Harry reminds this family of their own past and what they’ve tried to move on from since. For instance, when Gideon and Harry walk down a set of train tracks, Burnett cuts to an image of the same tracks but a generation or more earlier of young black men coerced into labour. Gideon’s family and friends are regular church attendees, including Hattie, whom we assume was an ex-lover of Harry’s tells him he reminds her of so much that went wrong in her life. That’s all the details she gives but we sense there’s more to it than just this simple phrase. Harry possibly represents something this community, first generation migrants to California, can’t forget. Harry embodies the past and the history of this community which became emancipated and has since adopted the values and trappings of bourgeois society. Gideon’s children are almost ignorant of their family’s past although Gideon constantly reminds them, particularly angering Babe Brother who feels he’s been treated so patronisingly by his father because of their past. There’s the constant reminder of Big Momma being born into slavery. Gideon’s children are selfish and materialistic, products of a bourgeois upbringing – perhaps Burnett wants to reclaim the link between the past and present, to remind those like the sons of Gideon where they originated from?
Whether Harry is ultimately a destructive element for the family or whether the family itself is prone to self-destruction is kept ambivalent. Despite the warnings about Harry; from his ominous entrance to Hattie’s concerns that he’s evil and spreads bad luck and death, Burnett makes it plain that not all was right from the start. Gideon, the family patriarch ensured his sons worked and sweated when they were younger and they’ve resented it ever since. Junior and Babe Brother squabble over who was the most favoured son when growing up. Babe Brother thinks himself as a “black sheep” and that Junior was never treated as harshly as he was. Burnett constantly reiterates how this has been a bone of contention for years, which culminates in the explosion of the violence between them in the film’s final third. Would these resentments have come to the surface without Harry’s involvement – for instance, he leads Babe Brother astray, causing problems in his marriage which Junior rebukes him for – or would they have continued to simmer? Ironically, Harry’s presence and ultimate death reunites the family – there’s much more of a calm as the film climaxes.
Although neither the concept nor style of ‘To Sleep With Anger’ are anything especially original, it is executed with such confidence and poise that this hardly matters. Observing the dynamics within middle class families occurs so commonly in film and television, but this is an impressive example, capturing the frustrations and tensions within relationships but also the warmth and sense of solidarity. Burnett himself remains objective with his camera, allowing events to unfold naturally and without bias or need to intervene. He uses a wonderful blues and gospel soundtrack, including several standards to reflect the past and history. The most impressive visual moments of the film are the stunning opening credits sequences of Gideon, seated as patriarch, then Burnett cuts to a portrait of Big Momma before then cutting to a bowl of fruit on the table before the entire screen self-immolates. This represents a link between the past and present and represents the entire film in a single shot.