One dilemma that I don’t think we’ve talked about much is that The Criterion Collection, as great and all-encompassing as it may seem, doesn’t always have the exact movie you want to see by certain directors. An example that applies to a recent director we covered is Pedro Almodóvar, whose favorite film of mine is not in The Collection (Talk To Her). However, it doesn’t bother me all that much that John ended up watching Women On The Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, since it’s probably the best place to start with Almodóvar.
I’m not sure if that’s necessarily the case with To Sleep With Anger, the lone film directed by Charles Burnett in The Criterion Collection, as it seems like 1978’s Killer of Sheep is the most influential and highly regarded of his films. But for whatever reason, be it copyright issues or something else, To Sleep With Anger is the place at which I’ll have to start with his filmography.
To Sleep with Anger focuses on a middle-class family living in South Central L.A. who retain some ties to their Southern upbringing. The head of the family is the not-so-subtly named Gideon (played by Paul Butler), and Suzie (Mary Alice) and they have two adult sons, one of who seems very occupied with work, so they end up babysitting his boy a lot. One day, the family’s usual routine is interrupted by Harry (Danny Glover), one of Gideon’s old friends from the South who literally shows up at his doorstep. Gideon lets Harry in with open arms and tells him that he’s welcome to stay with the family as long as he wants. While Harry seems just a little eccentric at first, there begins to be something darker lurking beneath, with another friend implying that Harry may have been responsible for another man’s death.
Things begin to unravel when Gideon falls ill for unexplained reasons and is bedridden for much of the back half of the movie. Meanwhile, the family’s youngest son (Richard Brooks) starts to have issues with his marriage, getting into constant fights while his wife separates from him briefly. Also, Harry increasingly acts more and more strange, constantly brandishing the knife he’s seen using on the blu-ray cover. While none of Harry’s actions are overtly sinister, the family starts to become more and more suspicious about what effect Harry is having on their family, especially when a lot of their ideology is based on the superstitions of the Baptist Church.
So, even though you wouldn’t necessarily conclude this from reading the plot description, the movie asks you to question whether or not Harry is some incarnation of Satan. To Sleep with Anger begins with this idea of eternal hellfire at the forefront, as the opening credits play over Gideon sitting in a chair in his living room while an overlay effect makes it look like he and certain objects around him are on fire. Additionally, the way the movie constantly contrasts the more conservative religious beliefs of Gideon and Suzie against their more capitalist-minded children introduces this idea of saints and sinners in modern America.
Though I’m far from the most qualified person to talk about this topic, To Sleep With Anger reminded me how the Black middle-class started to be represented more and more onscreen during the ’80s and ’90s. While this was the era of flashier street-level directors like John Singleton and Spike Lee, it was also the era of sitcoms like The Cosby Show and Family Matters. It’s also interesting that one of the other representations of the Black middle-class from this era that comes to mind is Danny Glover’s family in the Lethal Weapon movies. However, here his character is on the outside looking in on a more stable existence, though he seems more intent on sowing chaos than on having what Gideon has.
I found this movie a little hard to pin down, which was mostly a good thing. I suppose I would classify it as a family drama, though due to the creepy, not-quite supernatural presence of Harry, the movie feels like it’s constantly on the verge of turning into a thriller or horror movie. Similarly, it appears to have been a studio production but never quite feels that way. This is mostly due to the fact that its scope is very minimalist, with it barely containing any scenes that take place outside of the main family’s home.
Really, my only big problem with the movie is the way it looks. Considering how much the movie has in common with the Hitchcock thriller Shadow of a Doubt, I would’ve liked something a little moodier and that embodied Harry’s dark psyche. Instead, we get a movie that looks more like an episode of a ’90s TV drama. This makes sense considering cinematographer Walt Loyd mostly worked in TV, though weirdly his name on To Sleep With Anger’s Wikipedia page links to a Lost character, so I guess it feels a little harsh to blame this movie’s visuals on a fictional character. Regardless, Charles Burnett brings a lot of themes to the movie for the viewer to chew on and it makes me eager to check out his other movies, whether or not they ever make it into The Criterion Collection.