Director/Screenwriter: Charles Burnett
By Marilyn Ferdinand
A teapot filled with marbles that falls from the fridge and breaks. Leaves placed under the feet of a sick man confined to his bed. A broom brushing the tops of a man’s shoes, filling him with terror. These are the portents and prescriptions of the superstitions that drive the humorous, but still rather horrifying tale of a family plagued by the literal devil they know from L.A. Rebellion director Charles Burnett.
Burnett is best known as a chronicler of the African-American experience in his home city of Los Angeles. His 1978 debut feature, Killer of Sheep, is a somber look at the soul-deadening effect of poverty on a slaughterhouse worker from Watts and his own temptation to sin. His vibrant second film, My Brother’s Wedding (1983), again focuses on an L.A. family, with the clash between a ne’er-do-well and his striving older brother providing another type of African-American story. To Sleep With Anger, Burnett’s third feature, is his first to use professional actors, but the thread linking it to his earlier works remains strong. The folklore his parents and grandparents shared with him during his formative years offered him a different template for exploring the African-American community, one that allowed him to tell a horror story of his own that can easily join other cautionary tales passed through the generations.
To Sleep With Anger opens during a nightmare. Gideon (Paul Butler), a retired transplant to Los Angeles from the Deep South, sits in a chair as though posing for a portrait like the one of his ancestor hanging on the wall behind him. Burning Bush-like flames emerge from a bowl of fruit sitting on the table next to him. Soon, Gideon’s feet are on fire as well, and the flames lick at the legs of the wooden chair that supports him. When he awakens, he complains to his wife Suzie (Mary Alice) that he can’t find his toby, an amulet his grandmother gave him to ward off evil spirits. He then invites her unsuccessfully to join him in bed for an afternoon delight; this is the last time we’ll see Gideon feeling so frisky. Burnett is about to plunge him, the rest of the characters in To Sleep With Anger, and us into a world of superstition, family strife, and earthly minions of the devil working to snatch troubled souls at their most vulnerable.
The monster in the story is a genial elderly man from “back home” named Harry (Danny Glover) who shows up on Gideon’s doorstep the day after his nightmare after 30 years’ separation. Gideon and Suzie welcome him with open arms and tell him that he can stay as long as he likes. They introduce him to their oldest son Junior (Carl Lumbly) and pregnant daughter-in-law Pat (Vonetta McGee). Every time Pat tries to shake Harry’s hand, her unborn baby kicks her—a sure sign to us, if not to her, that something is rotten in the state of Harry. Gideon’s younger son, Babe Brother (Richard Brooks), is a lazy, unstable disappointment to his parents and the cause of frequent family arguments. He is married to Rhonda (Reina King), a real estate broker who detests her in-laws’ homespun ways, but not their services as babysitters; Babe Brother and Rhonda keep late hours working and partying, and frequently fetch their boy Sunny (DeVaughn Nixon) from Suzie and Gideon’s in the middle of the night.
Harry’s appearance and the steady introduction of a slew of down-home cronies who are more than willing to abet Harry’s attempts to corrupt Babe Brother with corn liquor and dice reminded me of the return of the ghostly lover of the grieving protagonist and his increasing disruption of her life in another 1990 film, Anthony Minghella’s Truly Madly Deeply. In the latter film, the emotional dysfunction that allowed in the supernatural mischief makers is obstinate, unresolved grief. In the same way, Gideon and his family are made vulnerable to Harry and his bad intentions not because of a lost toby, but because Gideon’s anger and disapproval fracture his relationship with Babe Brother and Rhonda and infect the rest of the family. It only takes Harry walking Gideon through a railroad depot, where Gideon has a vision of working like a slave to lay track, to awaken a deeper anger, one that lands him in a mysterious coma.
Burnett works slyly to illustrate how the accumulation of grievances or unintended consequences of seemingly harmless deeds can work like a magical curse to create an annus horribilis for anyone. Gideon’s fury with Babe Brother, as well as his sedentary lifestyle and fatty diet, suggest he is ripe for a stroke. Suzie’s nostalgia and overly compliant nature allow Harry to roost, and with Gideon out of commission, to decimate their flock of chickens and ruin their carefully tilled vegetable garden. Junior’s self-righteousness turns him from being his brother’s keeper to nearly being his brother’s killer. Babe Brother and Rhonda represent a couple who want too much too fast, easy pickings for a similarly inclined Harry.
Nonetheless, Burnett is serious about his fable. Harry, too, lost his toby decades before, and there’s no question that Burnett wants us to believe he is the devil. It is hinted that Harry murdered several people back home, and he proudly brandishes his weapon like an elderly Mack the Knife. He sets some very lascivious eyes on Linda (Sheryl Lee Ralph), an old girlfriend from back home who has been saved and who advises Suzie to poison Harry if she gets the chance. Linda is like a beautiful, white-haired, avenging angel, singing gospel songs that cut Harry to the quick. Harry eventually is defeated, and Gideon’s family is healed in a hilarious denouement that closes this tale in a celebratory manner.
Danny Glover has Harry’s oily manners and menace down to an exact science. Burnett said Glover was worried about being typecast playing older characters (he was 44 at the time), but he asked to read for Harry unprompted after spending some time with the script. Brooks plays Babe Brother with all the pain and anger of a child who doesn’t know how to do what’s expected of him and is condemned for it. When he finally asserts that his name is Sam, Samuel, he finally lets go of his flailing adolescence. Mary Alice, with the face of an angel, is particularly good in a scene where her old beau Okra (Davis Roberts) suggests that she should marry him if/when Gideon fails to recover because they are lodge brothers—her widening eyes and tight mouth show the emotional depths that her warmly superficial character rarely reveals. I also really enjoyed Reina King, who could have come off as a bitch supreme after sitting in her car in front of her in-law’s house during Sunday dinner, but who brings a lot more nuance to her largely self-involved character when Babe Brother really starts going off the rails.
Cinematographer Walt Lloyd’s rich colors that somehow manage to suggest sepia add to the fairytale trappings of this fantasy, and film editor Nancy Richardson shows the great timing that would boost her to a major career in this, her second feature. Most of all, Burnett creates a fulsome community of saints and sinners, chicken coops and pigeon cages, gold watches and rabbit’s feet—a colorful gumbo of African-American life that was rare to see on screens in 1990 and that remains all too rare to this day.