The United States of America
In the backyard of his comfortable home nestled in the bosom of South Central Los Angeles, Gideon throws a handful of feed into the chicken coop. Though nowadays he can most certainly afford to buy his chickens from the market, his Deep South beginnings betray him. The sun is bright and the brown ground scuffs his bare feet. In the living room, his wife Suzie leads a group of pregnant women in breathing exercises. The only sounds to be heard are her gentle voice, the exhalation of air, and the scurrying of her grandson Sunny upstairs. Next door a young boy noisily blows on a trumpet in the attic. The squawks and honks elicit the laughter and jeers of neighborhood children. For Gideon and his family, such is just another afternoon in the black middle class.
But all is not well. Sunny’s father, “Babe Brother,” the youngest of Suzie’s two sons, is unreliable and neglectful: he spoils his child, forgets about his mother’s birthday, and weasels his way out of helping Gideon fix his roof. And so, Gideon is angry with his son’s laziness and dishonesty. Junior, Suzie’s eldest, resents the “special treatment” he is convinced his parents gave Babe. And Babe is frustrated by his family’s suffocating demands. Though far from dysfunctional, the threads keeping this extended family together have begun to fray. Anger and resentment have started to creep into the recesses of their everyday lives. And elsewhere strange omens abound: Gideon’s dreams are filled with images of burning fruit and flaming feet, objects in the kitchen knock themselves over onto the floor, and their toby, a kind of protective charm passed down through the generations, goes missing.
In his pocket, a ratty address book. In his hand, a hat. On his lips, a smile brimming with honeyed affection. His name in Harry, and it’s been thirty years since last they’ve met. And though Gideon and Suzie are eager to welcome their old friend into their home, they have no way of knowing the evil that has crossed their doorway. And so the trap is sprung in Charles Burnett’s piercing meditation on African-American folklore simply titled To Sleep with Anger.
The title comes from an old saying: “Never go to bed angry.” Perhaps originating from Ephesians 4:26, the saying explains that couples should never go to sleep if they have unresolved issues or differences. To do so would only allow that anger and frustration to fester and take deeper root. Indeed, as the title would suggest, To Sleep with Anger watches as Gideon and Suzie’s family is corrupted from within by their enigmatic guest.
At first Harry is warmly amiable and friendly, though perhaps a bit rustic and superstitious. When somebody accidentally touches his feet with a broom, his goes pale and immediately throws salt over his shoulders. During a card game with Babe Brother he pulls out a knife to pick his thumbnail. He delights in showing Sunny the rabbit’s foot tied to it, explaining that it is meant to replace his toby which he “lost years ago.” He even helps Junior with his work around the house.
But ever so slowly, a more sinister side of Harry begins to seep out. He harasses and humiliates an old “blues singer” girlfriend who has converted to Christianity. His suggestion of holding a fish fry leads to the introduction of an assortment of drinkers, gamblers, and degenerates who seem to materialize onto their front porch. Eventually his poisonous words convince Babe Brother to abandon his family. Finally, the tensions borne of Harry’s presence leads to arguments, fighting...and murder.
But if Killer of Sheep took a Neorealist view of urban culture, To Sleep with Anger is positioned firmly within the Gothic. The film isn’t an observation, but an indictment of a community trapped between the contemporary and the traditional. Indeed, Harry has been described by Burnett as a character archetype from rural African-American lore: “He’s a [trickster] that comes to steal your soul, and you have to out-trick him. You can bargain with him. But you have to be more clever than he is.” If Gideon and Suzie’s family personifies those black families who sought to transition into the American middle class, then Harry is their Southern roots come knocking with temptations of superstitions, blues, and corn liquor. Harry is the embodiment of the ambivalence felt by many African-Americans (including Burnett himself) towards a past that provided a rich cultural milieu at the expense of slavery, servitude, and oppression.
These struggles are repeatedly pronounced via juxtapositions within Gideon and Suzie’s household. Watch how Burnett’s direction alternates between the realistic and the fantastical. Listen to the soundtrack’s struggle between pious church music and seductive blues guitar. Observe how simple superstitions like folk remedies and the observance of omens betray outward attempts at modernization. To Sleep with Anger is a thick, multi-textured film that begs for multiple viewings. To see it only once is to merely glean over the surface of one of the richest experiences in American Black cinema.