[Film Review] To Sleep with Anger (1990)

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Title: To Sleep with Anger
Year: 1990
Country: USA
Language: English
Genre: Drama
Director/Writer: Charles Burnett
Music: Stephen James Taylor
Cinematography: Walt Lloyd
Cast:
Danny Glover
Mary Alice
Paul Butler
Richard Brooks
Carl Lumbly
Sheryl Lee Ralph
Vonetta McGee
Ethel Ayler
DeVaughn Nixon
DeForest Covan
Sy Richardson
Davis Roberts
Julius Harris
Reina King
Rating: 7.4/10

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Charles Burnett is the unsung vanguard of African-American cinema, who starts his career years before Spike Lee, yet whose output is far less prolific, TO SLEEP WITH ANGER is only his third feature, after KILLER OF SHEEP (1978) and MY BROTHER’S WEDDING (1983).

The life of South Los Angeles inhabitants Gideon and Suzie (Butler and Alice) starts to unravel when an old friend from the South, Harry (Glover) blows in one day, out of hospitality and bonhomie, they invite Harry to stay as long as he wishes. After backhanded remarks questioning the philanthropic work of Gideon and Suzie’s elder son Junior (Lumbly) and his wife Pat (McGee), who is gravid with a baby number two, Harry finds his perfect target in Gideon and Suzie’s younger son Samuel aka. Baby Brother (Brooks), whose immaturity, trivial grievance and maladaptive fatherhood gives the access of Harry’s macho, wheedling male-bonding of going back to the South, which brings tension between Baby Brother and his family, especially with his wife Linda (Ralph), who is haplessly juggling between her career and traditional drudgery assigned to a wife, child-rearing and domestic chores.

Bad omen foreshadows Harry’s arrival, the opening surreal self-combusted metaphor and the breaking of Gideon’s charm all presage that it is a hostage to fortune to allow Harry overstaying his welcome. In Burnett’s progressive thinking, there isn’t much gray zone in the tradition versus urbanization tug-of-war, Harry, an incarnation of the vileness of a hidebound mindset (characterized by male chauvinism and superstition), is a menace with an elusive ulterior motive, and Danny Glover submerses deeply into Harry’s dark side with a simian, hail-fellow-well-met expansiveness that is only betrayed by his piercing, menacing glint, shrouded in a mystical aura, he is mesmeric enough to hold our attention, but we have no idea what is he up to, because gradually Harry is reduced to a symbol, an unequivocal bad influence, which makes his comeuppance a bit blunt, if there is any redeeming feature in him, it is totally under our radar.

Above all, TO SLEEP WITH ANGER is an ensemble piece, great performances are actualized, barring the top-billing Glover, also by its distaff players: Mary Alice, who is not just a devoted wife, a capable ob-gyn doctor, but also a witty and sensible mother, and knows how to live up to be the pillar of the household when the crunch befalls; Sheryl Lee Ralph, whose suffering wife of a man-child is mostly poignant, and a true belter Ethel Ayler, who plays Hattie, an old acquaintance whose newfound faith projects a searing antagonism against Harry even before he reveals his true colors. Good impression can be less reflected on the man’s front, Paul Butler’s Gideon is taken to his bed most of the time, Carl Lumbly is prone to be an empty vessel (by making the most noise) and Richard Brooks has the juiciest role, but is squandered by a script which portrays him as the good-for-nothing every has to condone with.

That said, TO SLEEP WITH ANGER deserves to be seen by a larger demography (it is a 4-times Independent Spirit winner if that doesn’t mean nothing), for its steady deconstruction-and-reconstruction of familial bonds, for its unpretentious ethnic portrayal, and most prominently, for Burnett’s unorthodox, pragmatic perspective on African-Americans’ assimilation and adjustment in a modern society.

referential entries: Julie Dash’s DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST (1991, 7.1/10); Barry Jenkins’ MOONLIGHT (2016, 7.6/10).

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