Blu-Ray Review – To Sleep With Anger

To Sleep With Anger is a Charles Burnett film from 1990. Burnett was one of the first Black filmmakers, arriving half a decade before Spike Lee and a real pioneer in the late 70s. His films were not widely seen, with this being the first that got wide distribution (his first, Killer of Sheep, was widely acclaimed but little seen).

To Sleep With Anger is a very strange drama with supernatural overtones. Set in South Central L.A., its about family and community, not the stereotypical gang-war bullshit. Harry (Danny Glover) shows up unexpectedly at the front door of Gideon (Paul Butler) and his wife Suzy (Mary Alice). The couple are both originally from the South, and they are still keeping some country traditions. Harry is also from the South and is traveling through on his way to Oakland. They haven’t seen him in years, and say he can stay as long as he would like.

Harry is charming and old-fashioned, but his presence in the house starts to create a crisis within the family home. In my interpretation, he is basically the Devil. Strange illnesses start happening, one of their sons starts to go astray due to Harry’s influence, but Gideon and Suzy are unaware of the danger.

It’s an interesting film, and gives a far more nuanced picture depiction of Black life than either typical independent or Hollywood films. It’s a matter-of-fact portrayal of a relatively middle-class Black family in trouble. Glover gradually becomes creepier as the gothic fairy tale continues, but it’s not an action movie. Instead, it’s that rarity, a magical realist Black fable—and probably the only film ever set in South Central without a gangster in sight. You could certainly compare it to Night of the Hunter, which I’m sure was an influence, mother! or The Killing of a Sacred Deer. It has a fantastic cast of solid actors, including Sy Richardson, and sees Glover in what might be his best performance—he was also executive producer on the film, something that he has continued to do ever since, especially on documentaries.

Even though there are a couple of bad edits in the film, it doesn’t hurt it that much. It’s clear that both Glover and Burnett had a lot of belief in the project. Burnett was part of his own film movement in and around UCLA, which kick-started the Black indy film movement of the 70s and 80s—which he didn’t get to enjoy, since his last film, in 1983, was killed due mixed reviews. To Sleep With Anger, however, got mostly good reviews at the time, although Roger Ebert slated it for being “too long” at 100 minutes. It won quite a few awards as well, including a special Jury Recognition award at Sundance, and Independent Spirit Awards for Best Director, Best Male Lead, Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress for Sheryl Lee Ralph. However, distribution and promotion issues prevented it from making much of a box office impact.

Most UK viewers would have caught it on Moviedrome rather than at the cinema, if at all, and it has been out of circulation for some time. There was a BFI DVD, but it was in 4:3 aspect ratio, although the film was shot in Widescreen.

Burnett’s next film was The Glass Shield, which took on police corruption, but since then he has mostly worked in television. Excitingly, he has just been tapped to do a series about Robert Smalls for Amazon—proof that if you stick around long enough, the streaming services may come to the rescue of your career. He’s also done a great documentary on Nat Turner (much better than the recent film).

The package has lots of extras, including a new featurette with interviews with cast and crew; a long featurette called A Walk With Charles Burnett, in which he visits various film locations; a clip from the Academy Awards from when Burnett received an honorary Oscar in 2018, and a booklet with an essay by Ashley Clark.

★★★★

Ian Schultz

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