To Sleep With Anger is set in Los Angeles, but its plot is rooted in the folklore of the American South, where Gideon and his wife, Suzie (Mary Alice), have come from. The story follows a middle-class family in South Central L.A. who are visited by their past in the form of Harry (Glover), an old friend who arrives unexpectedly to take advantage of their hospitality. All these events are grounded in realism—the surreal imagery of the opening doesn’t appear again—but there’s an undertone throughout the film of a spooky tale told around the dinner table, something out of the more superstitious upbringing that Gideon and Suzie left behind when they moved west.
Harry’s arrival coincides with a crisis in Gideon’s family, as tensions between his two sons, Junior (Carl Lumbly) and Babe Brother (Richard Brooks), erupt, and Babe Brother’s marriage to Linda (Sheryl Lee Ralph) hits the rocks. Gideon falls ill with a mysterious ailment that leaves him seemingly near death, and Suzie wrestles with her faith and her tendency to rely on old home remedies. Through it all, Harry is there, a gentlemanly presence at the dinner table, always dressed in formal wear but still somehow demonic. Friends of his appear out of nowhere and join him in Gideon and Suzie’s house, where Harry keeps turning the conversation to the past with stories of people long gone, of decades-old wrongs that went unaddressed.
Burnett explained in a 1998 interview for the Journal of American Folklore that Harry is partly inspired by a Georgian folktale character called Hairy Man, who steals the souls of people who bargain with him unwittingly. More than that, however, Burnett sees him as an avatar for a fading generation and way of life. In the script, Harry seems to exist as a repudiation of the moralizing, church-attending life and community Gideon and Suzie have built in L.A. “You’re not like the rest of Gideon’s friends. Most of them believe if you’re not hard at work, then you’re hard at sin,” Linda says to Harry, to which he replies, “I don’t believe in sin, though there is good and evil. And evil is something that you work at.” It’s hard to tell whether he’s malevolent or just a test to be endured. His presence stirs up trouble, but the family survives it and emerges closer than it was before.
As Harry, Glover, who was then at the height of his success, after Lethal Weapon 2, gives his best performance in a storied film career. It’s rare that an onscreen character actually smolders, but Harry seems to change the temperature of every room he’s in. Glover won an Independent Spirit Award, and the movie collected four overall, including Best Director and Best Screenplay for Burnett. The film, which grossed a little over a million dollars, received some critics’ awards and a special citation from Sundance, but it failed to catapult Burnett to wider appreciation.