25th Mar2019

‘To Sleep With Anger’ Blu-ray Review (Criterion)

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Danny Glover, Mary Alice, Richard Brooks, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Paul Butler | Written and Directed by Charles Burnett

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Made in 1990, the title To Sleep With Anger may make it sound like a straight-to-VHS domestic abuse thriller but this film is actually a sensitive, sad and funny drama about an African-American community in Los Angeles. Although this isn’t the standard Hollywood depiction of black LA as a hotbed of gang violence and hopelessness, but instead a middle class made up of the working young and the comfortably retired.

As we join the story, connections are already frayed. Gideon (Paul Butler) and Suzie (Mary Alice) are tired of taking care of their grandson (DeVaughan Nixon), whose parents, Samuel (Richard Brooks) and Linda (Sheryl Lee Ralph), are trying to maintain careers whilst raising a child. Samuel, somewhat disparagingly nicknamed “Babe Brother”, is a reluctant father, and he’s full of repressed rage and resentment. It doesn’t help that Gideon has a habit of comparing him to the more balanced and mature elder son, Junior (Carl Lumbly).

Into this mildly bubbling melting pot one day drops their old friend Harry (Danny Glover). It’s been thirty years since Gideon and Suzie last saw him, and it’s a joyous reunion. Soon, Harry’s stories of violent street life trigger in Samuel an animal instinct; a need to be a “real” man and protect his family. As if Linda can’t look after herself. She just wants a peaceful life, but Harry brings out the anger in her husband.

Harry taints everyone. He criticises Junior’s wife for feeding the poor multitudes rather than fattening up a single chosen one. On a day out, he pushes Gideon so hard that the latter suffers a stroke. Only Harry’s old flame, Hattie, can see through Harry’s jolly exterior, at the “evil” inside. He reminds her of all that went wrong in her life.

Brilliantly played by the ever-affable Glover, Harry is a different kind of movie monster, and chillingly relatable: friendly and extrovert, inspiring even, yet subtly destructive. Like a silent tornado he whips around the household, leaving devastation in his wake, sometimes indirectly. There are hints of a very dark past – a past which chimes with his current character, by way of manipulation as a means to achieving his vindictive ambitions.

These days, the multitude of interrelational layers throughout the film would no doubt lend itself to a miniseries. Thankfully, these characters feel thoroughly lived-in from the start, owing to nuanced performances and a script which skilfully filters its exposition down to the bare essentials. The shifting brotherly dynamic between Samuel and Junior is particularly convincing in its fickleness, and in the end moving.

To Sleep With Anger is also a very funny film at times. There’s a great scene where Suzie lists the homeopathic remedies she’s been trying out on Gideon, and the priest questions why she would bother with such “old-fashioned remedies” and not turn to prayer. And the final act is almost farcical, involving an inconveniently-placed corpse and a house full of family and friends in various states of grief and relief.

Director Charles Burnett shoots with simplicity, and the film sometimes has a stage-play feel, but he’s not without style or meaning. His direction of travel is constantly from medium shot to close-up, suffocating us in the proximity of this increasingly toxic family. In one scene, we see Harry stalking Suzie in the dark, after bedtime. Headlights illuminate him in angelic light. He turns and suddenly the rear lights make him bloom red like the Devil. The two sides of Harry, indeed.

There are themes that go far beyond the usual home invasion (or maybe that should be home infiltration) tropes. Harry represents the part of African-American culture that is defined by the anger of past crimes; and he perpetuates that anger, except not against the perpetrators of the original evil, but against his fellow African-Americans. As if well-off blacks, those living in peace, are traitors to the cause.

As per the theme song’s ironic words, “Precious memories, how they linger,” there is a tension between getting along in a typically white, middle class world and staying true to one’s roots. Is living in relative comfort and affluence a betrayal of a history horribly distinguished by segregation and suffering? How far should the torch of our forebears’ anger be carried? It’s depicted here as a peculiarly male problem. Linda and Suzie, with their wealth of understated strength, seem wisest in this melting pot of competing masculinity.

From A Raisin in the Sun to Fences, To Sleep With Anger sits in the tradition of plays which bring a more nuanced perspective to modern African-American life; plays that deliberately overreach their modest domestic settings. Burnett is a filmmaker who has always lived in the shadow of his first, student film, Killer of Sheep, so it’s great to see this more accessible and highly enjoyable work receiving a well-deserved revival.

Director-Approved Special Edition Features:

  • New, restored 4K digital transfer, approved by director Charles Burnett, with 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack
  • Of Family and Folklore, a new interview programme, featuring Burnett, actors Danny Glover and Sheryl Lee Ralph, and associate producer Linda Koulisis
  • A Walk with Charles Burnett, a new hour-long conversation between Burnett and filmmaker Robert Townsend that revisits Burnett’s films and shooting locations
  • Short video tribute to Burnett produced for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Governors Awards ceremony in 2017
  • Plus: An essay by critic Ashley Clark

To Sleep With Anger is out on Criterion Blu-ray from today, 25th March 2019.

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