In the last week of Black History Month, the Criterion Channel grants us a look into the newest film to be released in their collection – Charles Burnett’s 1990 film, To Sleep With Anger.
To Sleep With Anger starts off with an ominous long shot of a fruit bowl on fire, sitting idly next to a half-cut apple. As the credits role, we see Gideon (Paul Butler), the patriarchal figure of the film, dressed in all white church clothes. His chair is licked with flames, followed by his shoes, as we slowly fade to another shot of bare feet in dirt and realize that Gideon has fallen asleep holding his Bible and has been dreaming.
This opening scene is hauntingly beautiful and fascinating to watch, and serves as an omen for the rest of the film. Gideon and his wife, Suzie (Mary Alice) are an older couple with two sons and subsequent grandchildren living in Southern Los Angeles when one day they receive a visitor from their old home in the South – Harry, played by Donald Glover in one of his most powerful and unsettling roles to date. With Harry comes a sense of uneasiness, suspicion, and high tensions as his charming demeanor begins to unravel and bring forth a chaos within the family – particularly with Gideon’s youngest son, Babe Brother (Richard Brooks), who is frustrated by the way his father treats him and by the fact that he is not yet successful.
To Sleep With Anger feels at first to be a simple family drama, but it quickly reveals itself to be a film steeped in symbolism, disguising the unrealistic and uncanny with an incredibly realistic style that leaves the viewer feeling uncomfortable, frightened, and suspicious without quite knowing why. Danny Glover has never been more unsettling, no doubt thanks to Charles Burnett’s skillful way of closing in the scene around him where it was once vast and unending, creating a feeling of claustrophobia and unease. On multiple occasions, characters cast suspicious looks at Harry as he overstays his welcome, and speaks of violence or old Southern mysticisms. The presence, or rather the threat, of Hell is always apparent, and an old friend who was recently baptized and born again claims that Harry is “pure evil.” As the film progresses, it is unclear whether Harry serves as the Judas to this story, or as the serpent in the Garden of Eden himself. Was his presence here a way to finally bring light to the tensions of this family that could have destroyed it had it been left to fester, or was he simply his own temptatious creature of evil?
To Sleep With Anger is a film about tensions, both physical and spiritual. It is about the struggle to prosper while staying selfless, the struggle to stick to your traditions while embracing modernity, the struggle of good versus evil, God versus the Devil. The lingering past against the persistent present. However, this does not all reveal itself so freely. After first watching the film, I left feeling confused and empty, as if I was waiting for a climax that never occurred. But this film sits with you, it seeps into your mind until you cannot stop thinking about it, dissecting the signs, reading into it as if it were a folk tale. That is where its power lies – in the strange in-between of realism and mysticism.
Criterion Reviews is a series of short 500-word reviews of films released every week by Criterion Channel until the channel officially launches on April 8th. Don’t forget to sign up for the channel and support them!