Combustible Celluloid
Stream it:
Download at i-tunes iTunes
Own it:
With: Danny Glover, Paul Butler, Mary Alice, Carl Lumbly, Vonetta McGee, Richard Brooks, Sheryl Lee Ralph, DeVaughn Nixon, Reina King, Sy Richardson, Cory Curtis, Paula Bellamy, Wonderful Smith, Ethel Ayler, Beverly Mickins, Jimmy Witherspoon, DeForest Covan, Davis Roberts, John Hawker, Julius Harris, Irvin Mosley Jr., Margueritte Ray, Rai Tasco, Lorrie Marlow
Written by: Charles Burnett
Directed by: Charles Burnett
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 102
Date: 12/31/1989

To Sleep with Anger (1990)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Devil's in the Details

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I was lucky enough to see Charles Burnett's To Sleep with Anger during its all-too-brief 1990 theatrical release. I loved it then, and my memory of that time is frosted with Burnett coming to my college to speak (I attended with only a handful of other students), and my first and only meeting with Danny Glover (he was very friendly and gave me an autograph). But I never took any notes on the film and as the years passed and I wanted to write up a review, I found my memory of it a little too faded. Worse, it had become something of a lost film, never released on DVD and quite difficult to find. Now, in what will surely be one of the most essential Blu-rays of the year, the Criterion Collection has finally righted this wrong.

Sadly, though To Sleep with Anger is a remarkable film, beautifully made and a story well-told, it's probably most notable for what it is not. The emergence of Spike Lee in the late 1980s briefly created a demand for more black films in the early 1990s, and most of these were stories of life in the 'hood, with drugs and gangsters. Burnett — thanks in part to Glover's Lethal Weapon-style star power — was lucky enough to ride that wave and get this movie made and released, but viewers were probably confused that it was simply about a regular African-American family. No one deals drugs and no one gets shot. These kinds of films are rare today, of course, but just think for a moment about how extraordinary this would have been back in 1990.

We meet Gideon (Paul Butler) and Suzie (Mary Alice), and while they live in Los Angeles, their life seems simpler, more rural, with chickens and fish fries and visits from the local preacher. Their older son, Junior (Carl Lumbly), is the dutiful one, but younger brother "Babe Brother" (Richard Brooks) is seen as lazy and useless. His pretty, primped wife Linda (Sheryl Lee Ralph) can't relate to their "farmer's" ways. Into this picture comes Harry (Glover), an old friend that Gideon and Suzie haven't seen in years. They invite him to stay as long as he wants. But it's not long before bad things begin happening. We are encouraged to ask whether Harry may or may not be the devil.

Burnett's direction is so subtle and graceful that To Sleep with Anger eschews any such labels as being a supernatural movie or a horror movie. Its events may or may not be supernatural, or they may just be about superstition. There is mention of a "toby," or a good luck charm passed on to youngsters by grandmothers and great grandmothers. "You don't want to be at the crossroads without it," Harry says. But Gideon loses his the day Harry arrives, and Harry claims that he lost his long ago. Are these dreadful omens, or just a coincidence? The movie doesn't answer, but we can draw our own conclusions.

The movie's real magic is in its depiction of everyday life. Gideon and Suzie's house is frequently full of relatives and neighbors, there's a lot of food and talk, with many opinions expressed (not everyone is happy to see Harry) and many stories told. It's a great burst of life. Not one moment feels false or forced. If Jean Renoir was the master of portraying all the varying nuances of humanity in his films, then Burnett surely follows in his footsteps, and merits mention in the same breath. It's a shame that Burnett was never able or allowed to have the rich career he deserved or deserves, but at least Killer of Sheep and To Sleep with Anger at least stand as essential American masterpieces.

Movies Unlimtied