Starring: Danny Glover, Paul Butler, Mary Alice and Carl Lumbly
Rated: PG Drama
Set in South Central, a community in Los Angeles county, California, To Sleep with Anger is centered upon an African-American family. Headed by Gideon (Paul Butler), the patriarch, the foundation of the family is his wife, Suzie (Mary Alice). Typical of many Black residents in South Central, the husband and wife have retained their Southern roots regardless of their trek during The Great Migration. Examples of this retention include referencing their children by nicknames, having a vegetable garden and raising chickens in their backyard.
They have acclimated to urban life and are parents to two adult sons, Gideon Jr. or “Junior” (Carl Lumbly), who is married to Pat (Vonetta McGee) and Samuel or “Babe Brother” (Richard Brooks), who is married to Linda (Sheryl Lee Ralph). Rounding out this family are grandchildren, including one that Pat is soon expecting to deliver. Stable and content, the family is tight-knit.
However, this cohesion is threatened when Harry (Danny Glover), their friend from back home who they haven’t seen in more than thirty years, visits. Typical of their Southern hospitality, Gideon and Suzie offer Harry their home in which to stay. While oozing a homey allure, underneath his corn-liquored charm is something deceptive, possibly sinister, with Harry. His presence leads to examining the cracks in the family’s veneer. These cracks are deeply experienced by Babe Brother, a “Buppie” or Black professional, who is overwhelmed by the responsibilities of being an adult with a family. With Harry, his anxieties, anger and want of freedom become more fiercely pronounced and urgent.
Harry continues to wreak more chaos among Gideon’s and Suzie’s family and their mutual friends. Viewers will want to see if and how this Black family can be restored!
Premiering at the New York Film Festival, To Sleep with Anger had a limited release in theaters. Danny Glover championed in its trailer that this was, “the first major film written and directed by noted filmmaker Charles Burnett.” Burnett is best known for his inaugural, groundbreaking film, Killer of Sheep (1978). He was a member of the new generation of Black filmmakers known as the “L.A. Rebellion”. This cohort, which included Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust) and Haile Gerima (Embers and Ashes, Sankofa), were African and African-American filmmakers who studied and worked in the Film School at UCLA during the late 1960s to the late 1980s to create quality Black cinematic productions.
This film was met with mixed reviews from several critics. In his review for the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert praised Burnett’s writing and the efforts of the actors, notably Danny Glover. However, he shared that while this movie “seemed well-done, it … still plays too slowly. What should be brooding comes across as too deliberate. The reality of Harry’s invasion and its effect on the family still is being developed by Burnett after he has made its point. What should be a coiled film, exploding at the end, is one where the final act releases our impatience rather than our tension.”
However, To Sleep with Anger was hailed by many as a film triumph, especially for Charles Burnett, a Black, independent filmmaker. He has been praised by one of America’s greatest filmmakers and even lauded by legendary film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum as the country’s “most gifted Black American director.” In “Charles Burnett’s Other Masterpiece, To Sleep with Anger” for IndieWire, writer Brandon Wilson applauded the film and Burnett, praising, “Like all great art, To Sleep With Anger triumphs because it works both on a personal level … and it is provocative enough thematically to fuel hours of discussion about tradition versus modernity and how it has affected African-Americans, for better or worse … [Burnett]’s asking us to think about the generation gap, Christian faith versus backwoods mysticism, the grip of the past versus the pull of the present, African-American yearning for financial prosperity versus our sense of altruism & duty and complications within both sides of each coin.”
Wilson’s plaudits was shared by many, leading it to be nominated for ten awards. To Sleep with Anger won six of these nominations. It won four Independent Spirit Awards: Charles Burnett won “Best Director” and “Best Screenplay”; Danny Glover won “Best Male Lead” and Sheryl Lee Ralph won “Best Supporting Female”. Burnett also won the NSFC Award for “Best Screenplay” from the National Society of Film Critics Award and the “Special Jury Prize – Drama” at the 1990 Sundance Film Festival.
In “25 Years Later, Charles Burnett and Richard Brooks Reflect on Indie Classic To Sleep with Anger” by Adam Cook at IndieWire, both Burnett and actor Richard Brooks reflected on various aspects, including cultural roots, spirituality and the Black family, of the acclaimed film. Burnett shared, “Coming from the South and growing up in L.A. where it was so segregated – worse than the South in many ways – all the people in my neighborhood were from the South. So you had that Southern cultured environment. The church was very important. And there were these folk ways that were there. I was always fascinated by these Southern stories; people would share these mystified experiences of the South. I wanted to talk about folklore.
Times were changing, drug culture was taking over South Central, and you could see the new generation was missing something, a direction. The sense of community is one thing. People were living in a vacuum after the Civil Rights Movement dispersed. Blacks from different classes were separated. The close-knit family which promoted responsibility was now a hole, and the folk tales and superstitions, which I had rejected when I was younger, meant something.”
Brooks agreed that his character’s disregard for his family ties led to a dearth that made Harry’s manipulation far easier. He reflected that, “Babe Brother was a success story at the start of the film; he’s got a successful wife, a BMW, a child. But he finds himself at a crossroads. He’s moving up, but he’s questioning his responsibilities, not taking them seriously. He’s not participating in the family. So Harry preys on that, and taps into his insecurity and seduces him and that darkness seeps in.”
In 2017, To Sleep with Anger was selected for admittance to the National Film Registry!
In 1989, the National Film Preservation Board (NFPB) created the National Film Registry in order to select films worthy of preservation. As per their literature, the NFPB annually selects “up to 25 culturally, historically or aesthetically significant films … with a mission to ensure the survival, conservation, and increased public availability of America’s film heritage.”
In 2019, the Criterion Collection released the remastered edition for home media release. In 2020, a restored To Sleep with Anger was screened at UCLA, the Venice Film Festival and the Chicago International Film Festival, where Charles Burnett was given its Career Achievement Award.