Film Review: “To Sleep With Anger” — The Devil’s Temptations

By Matt Hanson

To Sleep with Anger is a masterpiece, a powerful reminder that, however seductive the devil might be, he can be overcome.

Charles Burnett is one of cinema’s great underdogs. The chronically underappreciated 1990 film To Sleep With Anger tells a story filled with so many different elements it would have fallen apart in the hands of a lesser filmmaker. His stark, moving 1979 debut film Killer of Sheep put him on the map a little when it was released to wide critical acclaim, but due to financial reasons beyond his control Burnett spent far too much time without the financial support needed to make his films. To Sleep With Anger was Burnett’s fiercely independent version of a big-budget movie (made for a little more than a million dollars), and although it’s a complex masterpiece the film largely hasn’t received the recognition it deserves until now, since Criterion has rereleased it.

The film revolves around an enigmatic drifter named Harry, played with devilish charisma by Danny Glover, who arrives unannounced at the doorstep of old friends from down south who are now living in South Central LA. Harry’s mere presence wreaks subtle havoc on the middle-class family’s existence, pushing all involved towards Biblical levels of discontent. Burnett’s direction is masterfully confident dealing with his  actors, who inhabit the narrative’s domestic spaces with aplomb. The family greets Harry enthusiastically at first, since he is an old friend, but their love and affection for him becomes tempered as they slowly realize what hides behind his down-home charm and pet superstitions.

Glover’s performance is nothing short of brilliant. Fresh off of a high-profile turn in Lethal Weapon II, the actor produced as well as starred, putting up his own money to see that the film was made. Glover knew a great character when he saw one. His Harry is, by turns, magnetic, sly, loquacious, earthy, charming, and diabolical. Burnett has explained that his inspiration for the film largely came from a seminal cultural conflict within African-American culture:  The Great Migration northward cleaved generations away from the time-worn, southern-based superstitions and mythologies. But the latter continued to resonate in the present, not quite vanished in time or memory. The folklore and superstitions of previous generations are manifest in Glover’s Harry, the subtle menace behind his bonhomie adds dramatic weight to his seemingly superficial personality quirks. Glover inhabits Harry (whose name suggests the “hairy man” trickster figure in Southern mythology) with an easy familiarity that seduces everyone around him, including the audience — but it masks the secret wiliness that’s behind his worldly charm.

Burnett says that what also inspired the film was his desire to portray, with accuracy, African-Americans living in his native South Central LA. Their everyday lives don’t correspond to pop culture’s thuggish or drug-ridden stereotypes, which were very much in the air in the early ’90s. The family Harry stays with is pretty ordinary and middle class. The patriarch is a steady, sensitive gentleman who takes life in stride, always ready with a bawdy but insightful joke. His sons have the usual inter-family rivalry, constantly jockeying for status and respect. When the father suddenly and inexplicably takes ill, the family’s safe foundation shatters and divisions start to deepen.

A scene from “To Sleep With Anger.”

What the film gradually reveals, as Harry works his sinister magic on each character’s inner insecurities and weaknesses, is the power of family in the black experience. Harry champions old-timey charm –bringing in bootleg liquor and cackling old bluesmen pals with their panama hats and tunes straight from Beale Street. But Harry’s freewheeling ways exacerbate domestic tensions, testing the loyalty of people who have known each other all their lives. The upshot of this conflict: we see the desperate need for a family to keep it together during tough times. These are people who have lived through a brutal system of exploitation and repression for decades, often surviving on nothing but family loyalty. To Sleep With Anger memorably dramatizes how this family overcomes the seductiveness of Harry’s smooth talk and earthy temptations. Not only does this test bring them closer together as a family, but it re-connects them to the larger community. In a sense, Burnett has given us a parable: a powerful reminder that, however seductive the devil might be, he can be overcome.

Matt Hanson is a critic for The Arts Fuse living outside Boston. His writing has appeared in The Millions, 3QuarksDaily, and Flak Magazine (RIP), where he was a staff writer. He blogs about movies and culture for LoveMoneyClothes. His poetry chapbook was published by Rhinologic Press.

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