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To Sleep with Anger – Review

November 3, 2019

Charles Burnett’s To Sleep with Anger received some glowing reviews when it was released in 1990. It won the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival before slipping away into obscurity, largely unseen and very difficult to find. Seldom broadcast on television, the film lacked a decent VHS or DVD release until it was added to the Criterion Collection this year.

So when the chance came for me to see this rare jewel in the cinema, I jumped at the opportunity.

Gideon (Paul Butler) and Suzie (Mary Alice) are an aging married couple living in South-Central Los Angeles. Although they have raised a nice family, they grapple with all of the stresses that such an endeavour entails. Their youngest son Samuel ‘Babe Brother’ (Richard Brooks) is feckless and pliable. Sam’s wife Linda (Sheryl Lee Ralph) detests her in-laws and their old-world ways. Gideon and Suzie resent constantly babysitting Sam and Linda’s kids. Babe Brother has a tense relationship with his older sibling named, confusingly, Junior (Carl Lumbly). All in all it is a normal family with a good life: their problems do not outweigh the values that sustain them.

This all changes when there is a knock at the door and in walks Harry, played with scene-stealing relish by Danny Glover. Harry is a friend of Gideon’s from the old days in the South. He has travelled down from Detroit and is looking for a place to stay. A delighted Gideon and Suzie tell him he can stay, not realising that once Harry is in the house, he will have no intention of leaving. Harry is all charm but a mass of contradictions. He claims to be a modern man and rejects Gideon’s churchgoing ways, and yet he is a believer in talismans and curses. He reacts coldly when a boy accidentally touches his shoe with a brush. Believing it to be bad luck, he spits on the brush to free himself of the hex. However, it’s not long before bad luck falls upon the family who are Harry’s hosts. Gideon inexplicably falls into a coma, and Harry starts to take over the house through a mixture of charisma and demonic intent. There are numerous hints that Harry could be the devil in disguise. A motley bunch of his friends arrive, seemingly out of nowhere, and Sam and Linda are reduced to being Harry’s servants, serving him food and drink and carrying out his every whim. Marriages are strained. Relations between family members start to crumble. One wonders if there is enough goodness left in the household to save everyone from Harry’s spell.

To Sleep with Anger doesn’t look like any other LA-set film you’ve likely seen before. There isn’t a smog-bound freeway, imposing architectural structures like the Parker Center, or the faux-glamour promised by the Hollywood sign. The entire world of these characters is contained within these few streets and suburban houses. Little wonder that Harry’s talk of ‘steaming juke joints’ and folkloric superstition of the Old South seems so alluring to a family inured to the blandness of contemporary life.

On its initial release, not all of the reviews were positive. In a largely complimentary review Roger Ebert admitted to struggling with the film, finding the climax ‘too long in coming’. To my mind Burnett has crafted a deliberately anti-climatic film. The sense of impending doom dissipates in the final half-hour as we move towards a denouement which is both beautiful and redemptive. Having pulled the family apart, it is completely in keeping with Harry’s character that he would bring it back together again. As he lies on the kitchen floor (spoiler alert), grinning up at the family he has belatedly united, Harry has made the ultimate Christ-like sacrifice. His ego demands nothing less.

To Sleep with Anger was screened at Picturehouse at Fact Liverpool as part of Black History Month. There can’t have been more than two dozen people in the audience, but sitting alone in the cinema just made it feel like a story that was all the more personal to me.

That said, it would be great if To Sleep with Anger finally found a larger audience. Give the devil his due and track down a copy of this overlooked classic.

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