This week, Charles Burnett joins the Criterion Collection with his 1990 masterpiece, To Sleep With Anger. Starring Danny Glover and exploring the lines of connection between a middle-class Los Angeles family and their rural Southern past, To Sleep With Anger won four Independent Spirit Awards, appeared on Slate’s Black Film Canon, and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.
Full of signs and portents, To Sleep With Anger presents a version of black life in South Central that’s comfortably urban with hints of the older generation’s origins before the Great Migration. Suzie (Mary Alice), a midwife, teaches natural childbirth classes to a mixed-race group of yuppie parents, and chickens roost in the backyard. Into this environment steps Harry (Glover), who brings with him folk wisdom, superstition, and reminders of bygone ways. He sleeps on a pallet on the floor and talks about the “toby”—a kind of charm—he’s misplaced. “You don’t want to be at a crossroads without one,” he says with a smile.
Glover’s performance is mischievous, malevolent, and incredibly enjoyable. Harry lays hands on everyone he meets, clapping a shoulder in confidence or grasping hands in a welcoming handshake. (When he reaches out to a pregnant women, her baby kicks so hard she has to sit down.) Is Harry driving a wedge between parents and children, brothers and wives—or connecting a family that’s lost sight of its history? What is the meaning of that history—what is seductive about it, and what is traumatic? “When you’re made to feel half a man,” Harry asks darkly late in the film, “what do you think the other half is?”
In the 1960s and 1970s, Burnett was part of what’s been called the “L.A. Rebellion,” a group of filmmakers affiliated with the UCLA film program, including Julie Dash and Haile Gerima. The Criterion disc’s terrific collection of extras includes an hourlong conversation between Burnett and filmmaker Robert Townsend as the two walk through Watts, discussing Burnett’s career, his shooting locations, and—in this clip—the L.A. Rebellion and the challenges of filmmaking as a black artist in those early days.
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