Charles Burnett is a staple of indie cinema history, alongside the likes of Chantal Akerman and John Cassavetes. Cited as one of the foremost authorities on the African-American experience, Burnett has directed numerous films focusing on the working class, each with a specific, subtle angle.
His debut feature, Killer of Sheep, is a slice-of-life story centered around Stan (Henry G. Sanders), a distraught slaughterhouse worker trying to make ends meet and live a happier life. My Brother’s Wedding, Burnett’s second film, is an equally character-driven tale in which Pierce (Everett Silas) agrees to be the best man at his brother’s wedding in spite of his general resentment and jealousy.
Both films are told very loosely—never focusing on a specific throughline for too long—and paced deliberately and methodically as a way to represent the humdrum nature of life. In addition to telling relatively universal stories of happiness and aging, both films feature honest depictions of being black in America during the late ’70s and early ’80s, taking place in the less-affluent streets of Southern California and highlighting the day-to-day difficulties of making a living at the time.
For their fifth Movie of the Week, the Criterion Channel has decided to highlight Burnett’s career with his third feature film, To Sleep with Anger, released on October 12, 1990 (Editor’s note: this was exactly one day before Jon Negroni of Cinemaholics was born). The familial drama tells the story of Harry (Danny Glover), a mysterious drifter from the Deep South who takes up a temporary residence in the home of an old acquaintance named Gideon (Paul Butler) and his wife Suzie (Mary Alice), as well as their extended family. As Harry continues to stay at the house, his very presence begins to affect everyone there, building a potent tension that carries throughout the remainder of the film.
To Sleep with Anger is Burnett’s first higher-budget film, and it’s also one of his most narratively focused thus far. It possesses a Hitchcockian command of tension that allows it to work, if for nothing else, on a superficially suspenseful wavelength, making it a potentially effective introduction to the rest of Burnett’s filmography. Danny Glover— who at the time was in the middle of the Lethal Weapon series—is perfectly cast as a mysterious, imposing presence. I’d always gotten the sense that he’d seen a lot in his lifetime, and Burnett immensely capitalizes on this performance by crafting a claustrophobic, tense environment upon the arrival of this character.
Gideon’s family consists of a wide variety of children, grandchildren, and friends, who all seem to have made a rather successful living for themselves. The only initial source of conflict comes from Gideon’s youngest son, Samuel (Richard Brooks), who feels disenfranchised by his older brother’s affluence (a common theme among Burnett’s work, apparently). A subtle and insidious change begins to take place in the dynamic of the family as harsh events unfold, including the disruption of a marriage and a sudden severe illness experienced by Gideon.
It all appears to come back to Harry, who seems to serve as a symbolic reminder of the historical roots and Southern origin of Africans in America. Having moved to Southern Los Angeles from Vicksburg, Mississippi at a young age, Burnett’s biographical experience sheds light on this story element, and it can be inferred that he has wrestled with his roots throughout his entire life. One particularly memorable pair of shots contrasts an empty train track in a rail yard with a group of black laborers working on the same track, revealing a gothic sense of historical juxtaposition. It all culminates in an incredibly unconventional climax that alone makes this film worth a watch.
Without being too heavy or pessimistic, To Sleep with Anger serves up melancholy. But it also paints a hopeful reflection of how far African-Americans have come in this country. I’m about as white as the day is long, so it’s entirely possible there’s some nuance I’m not picking up on, but even ignoring all of the subtext (which I don’t recommend), the film still plays perfectly as a striking and unorthodox thriller, and I’m so glad the Criterion Channel chose to highlight it. I’ve only seen a fraction of Burnett’s work, which isn’t as readily available as I’d like it to be, but watching this proved to me these films are more than worth seeking out, and you’ll hopefully feel the same if you give To Sleep with Anger a shot.
To Sleep with Anger, along with every other weekly title, will be available to stream when The Criterion Channel debuts on April 8.
Sam is a frequent contributor to Cinemaholics and former co-host of Anyway, That’s All I Got. Yes, he’s still recovering from the first time he saw Pulp Fiction.