One of America’s best kept secrets, and perhaps greatest failure as a collective nation, is a little-known filmmaker named Charles Burnett. I say failure in jest, but it is a disheartening reality that Burnett has yet to reap what he sowed. In a just world, his namesake would conjure the same degree of reverence as John Cassavetes or Samuel Fuller. That is, Burnett is a tremendously gifted and distinct director who has always been coated in relative obscurity, even within cinephile circles. Make no mistake, he has his admirers but the amount is far too lacking for the most prolific founding filmmaker of Black neorealism.
Burnett’s films paint a nuanced and naturalist depiction of the Black experience; these films were scripted, directed, and acted by African Americans, crafted with the intent to display the trials and tribulations of life in Black America. And yet, they were never explicitly socially-charged or preachy in any sense of the word, sharing more in common with the films of the Italian neorealist movement and Iranian New Wave than anything from American cinema. His films were self-contained and minor in scope, telling simple stories that would unravel into pieces of a larger puzzle — less narratively speaking, rather in diagnosing social and systemic issues that permeate communities on a much larger scale.
Burnett is best known for his critically-revered and fairly unorthodox amateur masterpiece, Killer of Sheep. I use the term “amateur” because the film quite literally began as a student film; it was his thesis project at the UCLA film school and he never intended for it to screen theatrically nor garner the attention that it did. The film was incredibly unique and fresh for being what was effectively a non-narrative film, one that was naturalist and free-flowing, yet able to traverse the palette of life in its subtleties and nuances. In Killer of Sheep, Burnett seemed to capture life and humanity in all of its shades of grey, achieving universality within a simple story about the southern Los Angeles suburbs — all while remaining wholly unique to the specific community of subject in its portrayal (their distinctive struggles and so on). One of Burnett’s neorealist influences, the Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray, said it best when noting how miraculous it was that the film existed, stating: “It’s hard to overemphasize how strange and ambitious and completely out of context it was for a Black urban filmmaker with no money and no reputation to make that kind of movie in 1977.” Having said that, while Killer of Sheep’s reputation and significance is well established within the American film canon, Burnett’s subsequent films are tragically overlooked and underappreciated, as is his remaining filmography in general. Films such as My Brother’s Wedding, The Glass Shield, and even a short like When It Rains all ring of the same sincerity and ambition found in Burnett’s breakout hit, and yet they are mostly coated in obscurity. However, there is one post-Sheep film in Burnett’s filmography that does appear to have cultivated its own audience (even if its admiration is still very niche) — it is arguably his most accessible film in terms of a first-time viewing as well as distribution — and that film is 1990’s To Sleep with Anger.
Set in South Central Los Angeles, To Sleep with Anger tells the story of a working class Black family who receives a surprise at their doorstep when an old family friend, Harry (Danny Glover), decides to pay them a visit. The household consists primarily of the patriarch Gideon (Paul Butler) and matriarch Suzie (Mary Alice), although their two married sons — the mature, stoic Junior (Carl Lumbly) and ill-tempered, careless Samuel (Richard Brooks), also referred to as “Bob Brother” — and their wives and children are often present. When Harry arrives, Gideon and Suzie welcome him with open arms and the former insists that he stay with them for as long as he pleases, to which Harry politely but hesitantly accepts. The three go a long way back, all originating from the Old South; Gideon and Suzie have shed their Southern ways long since having relocated to Los Angeles, but Harry is a stark reminder of their roots. While Harry’s arrival is initially met with joy and warmth, everyone quickly falling for the allure of the charismatic old-timer, his presence begins to elicit sinister and almost supernatural connotations.
That is, before Harry came into the picture, there was growing animosity between Gideon and his sons — part of why they are ever present around the house is because they frequently leave their own children in the care of their parents. What is more is Samuel’s anger issues and fragile ego which seem to put him at odds with everyone in the family, including his own wife, Linda (Sheryl Lee Ralph), who he violently lashes out at, seemingly regularly. The moment in which Harry entered the picture seemed to act almost as a catalyst for exacerbating these family tensions, he is constantly attempting to wedge himself in between said conflicts, whispering questionable words of advice into the ears of all involved parties as if his only purpose was to sow division. In particular, Harry appears to have complete influence over Samuel whose behaviour and mental standing deteriorates over the course of Harry’s stay. Strangest of all, however, is that once Harry begins to overstay his welcome and unease the family, Gideon falls sick with a mysterious illness that leaves him incapacitated for the duration of Harry’s stay all while Harry begins inviting hordes of his questionable, heavy-drinking, and hard-gambling friends from down south.
None of this benefits from the fact that Harry is a genuinely frightening figure who gives off the demeanor of a wolf in sheep’s clothing, no doubt uplifted by Glover’s exceedingly tense and unnerving performance. There are brief instances in the story where Burnett slightly peels back the curtains regarding Harry’s background and past endeavors, which really give the impression that this is a man who is hiding several bodies under floorboards somewhere — not to mention his creepy monologues while toying with a sheep skinning knife. From Glover’s performance alone, first-time viewers watching To Sleep with Anger may expect a thriller, the story about a visiting family friend with a shady past is very reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt and Anger ostensibly appears to be Burnett’s rendition of said film. Though, To Sleep with Anger is not so much a thriller at all, instead it is more of a contemporary folklore tale in which you can extract plenty of biblical elements from (the Bible and church appears throughout the film several times as a symbolic motif). Harry is very much the deceptive serpent that seeps its way into the Garden of Eden and attempts to induce disorder.
The primary theme in the film is, expectedly, that of the familial unit as well as its structure and instability — the volatility and specific conflicts corroding Gideon’s family acting as a microcosm for the issues plaguing the larger community as a whole. Burnett has always been interested in the systemic and historical ramifications placed upon the family unit, particularly of Black families, and Harry acting as the root of conflict, being a blast from generation’s past, reflects this reality. Of all of Charles Burnett’s films, there is one moment of To Sleep with Anger that interestingly stands out from the others and that is its opening: while Anger is primarily grounded in realism, it opens with an overtly surrealistic sequence involving Gideon sitting motionless next to table that abruptly catches fire to the tune of “Precious Memories.” While it sets the tone for what is to come, it represents a moment of deviation and risk for the filmmaker who was deemed synonymous with his neorealism — and it is a truly entrancing scene that showcases the possibilities of potential for what this obscured director was and is capable of.
Charles Burnett directed To Sleep with Anger in 1990, which was seven years following the release of My Brother’s Wedding — Anger was Burnett’s first film after years of financial instability that left him unable to fund any projects for an extended period of time. This was also Burnett’s most expensive film to date, made on a budget of $1.4 million USD (which is still relatively frugal), and his first to feature any professional actors. Unfortunately, as seemed to have been the case for many of Burnett’s films, To Sleep with Anger released to sparse publicity, earning only a limited theatrical release and screened across merely 17 theaters nationwide. Like Killer of Sheep which never truly received a wide theatrical release until 2007, Anger was a film that has only truly cultivated its audience in recent years, having been selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry in 2017 and then distributed by the Criterion Collection two years later. The whole situation is frankly tragic to read about because it is a genuinely great film that warrants a far larger audience than what it currently has; there are so many complexities and nuances to be found within its narrative that cannot be succinctly captured within a simple synopsis — so much that any viewer, regardless of any differing walks of life, can find something to relate to. While this is not my personal favourite Burnett feature, it may be the best starting point for his filmography due to its heavier emphasis on conventional narrative structure and inclusion of professional actors, through To Sleep with Anger you can discover the works of one of America’s most underappreciated filmmakers of the past century.