The trailblazing African American director Charles Burnett’s third feature, To Sleep with Anger (1990), was his biggest production to date, albeit still made on a modest budget of $1.4 million, a significant portion of which was raised through the attachment of its star and executive producer, Danny Glover. At that point, on the heels of the first two Lethal Weapon films, Glover was a genuine Hollywood attraction, but To Sleep with Anger stands in stark contrast to the explosive antics of Riggs and Murtaugh.It is a quiet, nuanced, and utterly beguiling drama of family and folklore, featuring Glover as Harry Mention, an enigmatic drifter who one day arrives at the home of a middle-class black family in South Central Los Angeles.
Harry is at first gladly received by patriarch Gideon (Paul Butler) and matriarch Suzie (Mary Alice)—this friendly pair are excited to see their old pal, a charismatic yarn spinner who brings with him evocative reminders of the family’s southern roots. But Harry overstays his welcome, and it’s not long before his insidious ways and sinister energy catalyze a dramatic rupture of the extended family’s fabric. The simmering animosity between Gideon and Suzie’s two adult, married sons—gruff, responsible Junior (Carl Lumbly) and petulant Babe Brother (Richard Brooks)—gradually accelerates, with Babe Brother increasingly in thrall to Harry’s unreconstructed machismo. Gideon suddenly falls gravely ill. And in a comic touch that’s somehow simultaneously baroque and understated, Harry gradually lards the home with a flock of hard-gamblin’, liquor-neckin’ old chums from down south. They never seem to leave, much to the annoyance of the family’s female members. As the tension slowly ratchets up, the viewer is left to wonder whether the tricksterish Harry is going to bring down the clan for good.
Even before Harry’s first appearance, though, Burnett fosters a mood of foreboding, in a remarkable opening sequence in which a deadpan Gideon sits next to a table, sweating in a cornflower-blue suit, while the soaring song “Precious Memories,” by the legendary queer electric-gospel artist Sister Rosetta Tharpe, chugs and stirs on the soundtrack. Suddenly, flames (rendered with subtle visual effects) leap from a fruit bowl on the table, then spread to Gideon’s chair and shoes. Despite the heat, Gideon, chillingly, remains frozen. A match-dissolve edit reveals that Gideon—now shown to be actually sitting outside in his yard, barefoot, slumbering, and clutching his Holy Bible—has been dreaming. He shakes himself awake, and the camera drifts inside the house to capture the altogether more comforting presence of Suzie, leading a birthing class for expectant couples. But the eerie, ambiguous mood persists, and in one inspired stroke Burnett has economically conveyed the coming film’s core themes: faith, family, fear, and fortune.
“The LA Rebellion sought to portray black psychological interiority on-screen with grace, formal experimentation, and insight, crucially from a place of intimate knowledge.”
“The film endured a fate similar to that of other unorthodox yet hardly impenetrable works by independent black filmmakers of the period.”
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