Director: Charles Burnett
Screenplay: Charles Burnett
Producers: Thomas S. Byrnes, Caldecot Chubb
Starring: Danny Glover, Paul Butler, Mary Alice, Richard Brooks, Carl Lumbly
Duration: 102 mins
As a long-time fan of American Independent Cinema, I’m used to seeing films I’m interested in being described as “slow-burners”. Some of my favourite films of all time have been or could be described as such, and yet the slow-burner tag still fills me with trepidation. You see, just as a slow-burner can be the most rewarding kind of film, subtly working its charms on a viewer and leaving them with talking points aplenty to bat back and forth with their fellow cineastes, if a slow-burner doesn’t ignite for you then ultimately it ends up just feeling… well, slow. The crucial element here then is fire. The director has to bring the fire in some way or the audience is just left cold. It’s all very well to have people staring out of windows for half an hour at a time or communicating through esoteric metaphor or symbolic gesture but if there’s nothing for a viewer to grab onto then the flame doesn’t spark and the slow-burner loses its hyphenated appendage.
Despite his debut feature Killer of Sheep being widely regarded as one of the pivotal films in the development of the American Independent Cinema boom, Charles Burnett is a director who struggled for many years to get his films made. Described by the New York Times as “the nation’s least-known great filmmaker and most gifted black director”, Burnett’s first three features were separated by periods of over half a decade. To Sleep With Anger, the third of these films, was made possible by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation which contributed to the film’s $1.4 million budget, a princely sum by Burnett’s previous standards. Burnett also secured some star power when he cast Danny Glover, fresh from the success of two Lethal Weapon films and Spielberg’s The Color Purple. The pieces were in place for Burnett to make his breakthrough. The question was, could he bring the fire?
With To Sleep With Anger, Burnett brings the fire in all sorts of ways: at first overtly and literally, then subtly and with gradual intensity. The symbolic portents of the opening scene in which family patriarch Gideon sits motionless as objects around him (and eventually the man himself) are engulfed in flames sets the tone brilliantly but stylistically the film moves into the ostensibly more grounded territory of a family comedy-drama. Burnett handles these early scenes beautifully, introducing us to Gideon’s family with naturalistic little glimpses of their lives, loves, conflicts and concerns without even skirting the melodrama we sense they will eventually bubble over into. The viewer senses it will only take a catalyst to cause this and it arrives in the shape of that most ominous of tropes, an unexpected visitor. That visitor is Harry, an old family friend from the past, and his arrival quickly reminds us of that fiery opening scene. But having planted those seeds, Burnett once again holds back, allowing Harry to first slowly work his potentially malevolent influence through a series of encounters and speeches before stepping back from the action and watching things begin to unspool.
Another way Burnett brings the fire in To Sleep With Anger is in the casting of the pivotal role. Danny Glover is a vastly underrated actor, usually consigned to supporting roles and rarely recognised as one of the highlights he invariably is. But in the role of Harry, Glover’s talents are impossible to ignore. He strikes exactly the right tone to make the mysterious influencer an unsettling rather than overwhelming presence. In his incessant speechifying and with his disarming manner, Glover makes Harry a bold, mesmerising presence who stands out in every scene without having to over-assert himself as a less subtle performer may have played it. The beautiful new cover art by artist Charly Palmer captures a sense of this far better than the lamentable original poster which depicted Harry grinning evilly like The Joker and holding playing cards with the family’s pictures on them. It’s the sort of cover that damages the film by setting up erroneous expectations. Anyone who saw it first would probably assume Harry was the Devil himself but there’s far more going on in To Sleep With Anger than such a straightforward reading would suggest.
Glover is so thoroughly entertaining as Harry that it almost feels like a shame when he withdraws a little from the film in the later scenes. But this withdrawal is entirely necessary, since Harry is an exerter of influence rather than a key player in the fallout from that influence. His reward is the calm he finds amongst the chaos he inspired, exploiting the hospitality he is offered to the point where he doesn’t so much have his feet under the table as out in plain sight, sockless and brazenly treated with toenail clippers before the eyes of the uncomfortable family. Just as Harry works his power over the family, so Glover continues to quietly assert himself over the film in these later stages, subtly reacting to the fallout of his arrival on the margins of the action.
There’s a veritable cornucopia of themes encapsulated in Harry. He is a ghost of the past, from the now middle-class family’s less prosperous early days in the South, bringing elements of those bygone days crashing awkwardly into their new LA home and setting up an irreconcilable opposition which is further exacerbated by his magnifying of the tensions between superstition and religion which already dog Harry’s hosts. A lost “Toby”, a good luck charm, seems to play a part in bringing Harry back into their lives and once he is there the omens keep cropping up. Children, even unborn ones, shrink in Harry’s presence and when Gideon falls ill it seems to be down to Harry. In a lesser film we might suspect him of having poisoned Gideon but Burnett has so thoroughly convinced us of Harry’s otherworldliness that the mind never even goes anywhere near such an assumption. The subtly of the screenplay and direction has worked its own influence on the audience so that there is no need for Burnett to dispel any potentially damaging misconceptions.
Despite being a modest critical success, To Sleep With Anger’s original reviews were largely tinged with a sense of disappointment, with complaints that the film was too long, too vague or too ambitious. But Burnett’s film has grown in stature over the years, betraying the genuine slow-burning effect it has. Particularly in 1990 when it was first released, To Sleep With Anger must have felt quite unlike anything else. It fits beautifully into the burgeoning American indie boom of the era but it deliberately eschews the scandal-courting flash or overt quirkiness of some of its better-known contemporaries. To Sleep With Anger plays more like a slice of vintage American folklore, never overreaching itself in a quest for viewer approval. Nevertheless, it secures this prize anyway entirely on its own terms, for any viewer who has the patience, time and inclination to let it gestate for the period it deserves, nay, demands. That’s the beauty of the slow-burner.
To Sleep With Anger is released on Blu-ray by Criterion on 25 March 2019. Special features are as follows:
– New, restored 4K digital transfer, approved by director Charles Burnett, with 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray
– Of Family and Folklore, a new interview program, 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