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.”
To Sleep with Anger’s startling flirtation with magic realism in an identifiably middle-class setting signaled a fresh departure for a filmmaker hitherto associated with brusquely naturalistic—if also gorgeously poetic—portraits of working-class African American families. Burnett had first come to attention with his 1977 UCLA thesis film, Killer of Sheep, a stark, black-and-white drama set in LA’s impoverished Watts neighborhood, in which the eponymous character (played with agonizing vulnerability by Henry G. Sanders) is a soul-deadened abattoir employee, drained of his joie de vivre by his social and economic surroundings. These surroundings were intimately familiar to Burnett, who as a small child in 1947 moved north with his family from Vicksburg, Mississippi, to Watts, where he grew up.
Killer of Sheep is arguably the best-known film to emerge from the movement that would be dubbed (by film historian Clyde Taylor) the LA Rebellion. Forged in the fraught aftermath of the 1965 Watts riots, and a climate of anti-Vietnam and black-liberation activism, the LA Rebellion featured filmmakers such as Burnett, Haile Gerima, Billy Woodberry, Larry Clark, Jamaa Fanaka, and Julie Dash. The group’s work, inspired by a broad range of influences—including American “race movies” of the twenties and thirties, British documentaries, Italian neorealism, and Latin American and African anticolonial cinema—explored the complexities of black, predominantly working-class, American life. It sought to portray black psychological interiority on-screen with grace, formal experimentation, and insight, crucially from a place of intimate knowledge, countering the reductive, stereotyped, and diminished images of blackness being produced just a few miles east in Hollywood at the time (including, it could also be said, the semicontemporaneous blaxploitation explosion, with its often absurdly Manichaean social dynamics and cartoonish sexual stylings).
Dash has likened the dynamic of the LA Rebellion to that of a jazz combo, with players swapping instruments and working on one another’s projects. Bush Mama, for example—the Ethiopian-born Gerima’s 1975 UCLA thesis film, a ferocious feminist drama—was coshot by Burnett, while Burnett would write and shoot Woodberry’s achingly tender family drama Bless Their Little Hearts (1983), a spiritual successor to Killer of Sheep. Dash, best known for Daughters of the Dust (1991), the first film directed by an African American woman to receive national U.S. theatrical distribution, served as first assistant director on Burnett’s underappreciated second feature, My Brother’s Wedding (1983), another acutely observed, Watts-set drama, in which an indolent young man, Pierce (Everett Silas), struggles to take responsibility for himself.
In My Brother’s Wedding, the main character is effectively an overgrown kid, but Burnett’s films are exceptional for their subtle observations of the lives and experiences of actual children; they are rarely main characters, seen if not necessarily heard, but they are clearly shown to feel. The children in Killer of Sheep—playful, reckless sprites full of hope and humor—pepper the landscape, contributing some of the film’s most indelible images: a tiny girl wearing a rubber dog mask (an oblique nod to the boy-in-African-mask closing sequence of Ousmane Sembène’s anticolonial masterpiece Black Girl); a low-angle shot of kids making death-defying leaps from one building to another. These little ones are poignant counterpoints to the drudgery-stricken adults, who are fun-house reflections of the children’s own sad futures. This point is made explicit in Killer of Sheep’s opening shot, when we see, in close-up, the face of a small, frightened-looking boy who is being lectured by a stern offscreen father figure on the importance of fighting back against bullies in order to be a real man. We never see the moon-eyed lad again after this moment, but the meaning is clear: innocence rarely lasts long for black children in a district scarred by residential segregation, racist police brutality, and the violent uprisings of 1965.
In To Sleep with Anger—a film ostensibly about adult relationships—children are once again crucial as observers, catalysts, and subtle symbols. Babe Brother and his wife’s young son, Sunny (DeVaughn Walter Nixon), rarely speaks, but he is quietly present in, and affected by, many scenes of familial tension marked by Babe Brother’s increasingly hostile masculinity. Early in the film, moments before Harry’s arrival, a broom mysteriously falls to the kitchen floor, on its way smashing a teapot and causing Sunny to scatter his marbles. Later, Sunny accidentally brushes Harry’s foot with the broom, a superstitious no-no that sends the usually cocksure visitor into paroxysms of panic.
This broom is just one of the film’s myriad allusions to black folkloric and oral storytelling traditions of the Old South compassionately presented by the writer-director, who was tapping into his Mississippian roots and tracing his own childhood. Most fundamentally, Harry himself is based in part on the African American folktale of the Hairy Man, who is part European devil, part African spirit (amazimu), and part conjure doctor. Other references include the lucky charms, or “tobies,” misplaced by both Harry and Gideon, and even Harry’s evocative, fable-adjacent surname, Mention. “Being from the South,” Burnett told me in a 2016 interview for Film Comment, “my mother and grandma had these superstitions . . . Some people they wouldn’t even let in the house. They would sense this bad karma about people. A lot of this stuff I considered at one time kind of silly and ‘country,’ but as I grew up . . . I began to change my mind and respect them.”
“The film endured a fate similar to that of other unorthodox yet hardly impenetrable works by independent black filmmakers of the period.”
It’s fitting, then, that Sunny is the inadvertent architect of Harry’s ultimate downfall. Shortly after a violent confrontation between Babe Brother and Junior has been settled—in one of the film’s most delicious ironies, Harry deserves credit for indirectly bringing the family closer together than they ever would have been had he never materialized—Sunny accidentally kicks over his tin of marbles in the kitchen. Harry soon steps on the marbles, slips to the floor, and suffers a fatal heart attack. In a quietly ghoulish, politically freighted postscript, Harry’s dead body is left in the kitchen, covered only by a sheet. The medics won’t remove him, and the coroner is AWOL. “If he was white, they’d have had him on his feet and out of here,” one family friend remarks.
There is another, even more inscrutable child in To Sleep with Anger: an unnamed boy (played by Burnett’s son) who blasts tunelessly on his trumpet throughout the film. His unappealing peals ring across the neighborhood, at one point causing a surprised Suzie to drop an egg on the floor, at another distracting Harry as he’s about to bring down an ax on the neck of a chicken. Midway through the film, Suzie, perturbed by Harry’s devious and divisive behavior, questions him on the quality of his friendship, to which Harry calmly retorts with a riddle: “Like that boy next door playing his horn . . . if he was a friend, he would stop irritating people. But if he stops practicing, he wouldn’t be perfect at what he does someday.”
Burnett, as it happens, used to play the trumpet when he was a mischievous boy—he would purposely leave his bedroom window open and blow as loudly as he could, knowing that he’d drive the neighbors crazy. There’s something autobiographical, then, about the film’s coda, which is every inch as spine-tingling as its mystical opening flourish. Following a shot of Harry’s body still moldering in the doorway, Burnett cuts to one of the boy honking away. After a few more bars of squelching noise, his awful playing magically, seamlessly transforms into a soulful lament that provides the melody line of the song that scores the final credits. The moment is thus both a ringing affirmation of what scholar Ed Guerrero terms “the blues as an index of the soul’s progress” and the symbolic sound of a modest yet brilliant filmmaker slyly announcing the perfection of his own craft.
This perfection was noted by a number of critics at the time, including the Chicago Tribune’s Dave Kehr, who branded To Sleep with Anger “the first great film to come our way in quite a while.” And yet the film’s release was botched by its distributor, the Samuel Goldwyn Company, which opened it on a mere handful of screens and marketed it as an art-house curiosity rather than as a film that would have much wider appeal, particularly for black audiences. Consequently, it endured a fate similar to that of other unorthodox yet hardly impenetrable works by independent black filmmakers of the period, such as Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, Chameleon Street (Wendell B. Harris Jr., 1989), and Sidewalk Stories (Charles Lane, 1989): high critical praise, box-office oblivion, and, for decades, a dismayingly low profile.
Following To Sleep with Anger, Burnett changed tack with the intriguing psychological cop drama The Glass Shield (1994) before shifting mostly to short documentaries and television films—and frustratingly (for this major fan) uncompleted or underfunded projects. Burnett has spoken often of the difficulty he has found in securing funding for his type of filmmaking: introspective, warm, lived-in, and perennially out of step with prevailing commercial trends in black cinema and beyond. He has been handsomely garlanded by myriad institutions—including receiving, in 2017 (alongside the likes of Agnès Varda), that classic backhanded compliment, the honorary Academy Award—and rightly hailed as a hero by generations of emerging filmmakers. The influence of his nuanced family portraits can be seen in films such as Kasi Lemmons’s majestic southern gothic Eve’s Bayou (1997) and Spike Lee’s Crooklyn (1994)—which was shot by Arthur Jafa, whose debut credit was as first assistant cameraman on My Brother’s Wedding—as well as in the work of Ava DuVernay (Middle of Nowhere, 2012), Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, 2013), and Barry Jenkins (If Beale Street Could Talk, 2018). Though one is entitled to lament the might-have-beens of Burnett’s career—and the hurdles that have played a role in that scarcity—it is equally salient to laud the body of work that he has created, of which To Sleep with Anger is a characteristically quiet, beautifully calibrated jewel.
Portions of this piece have appeared in different form in essays by the author for Film Comment and Sight & Sound magazines.