To Sleep With Anger Is a Masterpiece From an Overlooked Film Pioneer

Charles Burnett’s family drama was one of the best movies of the 1990s, but it never received the attention it deserved.

The Samuel Goldwyn Company

To Sleep With Anger begins with a shot of a middle-aged African American man named Gideon (played by Paul Butler) dressed in his Sunday best: a crisp light-blue suit. On the table beside him are a bowl of fruit and a fading picture of a woman from another time. She’s looking sternly at the camera while he looks off into the middle distance. The fruit catches fire, followed by the table leg, then by Gideon’s shoes—but the flames consume none of them. It’s an omen weighted with biblical meaning, an inscrutable signal of the trials that lie ahead. The film then cuts to Gideon waking from a dream with a troubled look on his face.

It’s an arresting opening to one of the best movies of the 1990s, an American masterpiece that remains relatively unheralded almost 30 years after its release. The director, Charles Burnett, is an African American filmmaker whose work has drawn immense critical acclaim but has rarely found a wide audience. To Sleep With Anger, made for $1.4 million in 1990, was his biggest film to date, more expensive and more narrative-heavy than the earlier experimental movies that cemented his reputation as an artist (Killer of Sheep and My Brother’s Wedding). It featured a major star, Danny Glover, who produced the film and helped secure its financing. But it’s never been seen as much as it deserves to, though a new Criterion Collection edition should help change that.

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.

Burnett was once described by The New York Times as “the nation’s least-known great filmmaker,” which is just about the most backhanded superlative one could hope for. His breakout movie, Killer of Sheep, made as his master’s thesis for UCLA’s film school in 1977, is a bracing examination of a black man’s life as he works a monotonous job at a slaughterhouse in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. Though acclaimed at festivals, Killer of Sheep wasn’t theatrically released until 2007, because Burnett hadn’t secured the necessary music rights. In the meantime, it became a piece of art-film legendaria, a calling card from a director who should’ve garnered much more renown than he did.

Burnett’s 1995 police-corruption drama The Glass Shield, which followed To Sleep With Anger, is a plottier and more overwrought film, but a compelling one nonetheless. It was distributed by Harvey Weinstein’s Miramax (which pushed for a different ending and leaned its marketing heavily on a small role from Ice Cube) and made just a modest impression with audiences and critics. Since then, Burnett has mostly worked in television and documentaries; he won an honorary Oscar in 2017, but hasn’t released a movie in more than a decade. He’s now reportedly working on a project for Amazon called Steal Away, about the life of Robert Smalls, who escaped from slavery in 1862 and later became a U.S. congressman.

The news of a forthcoming film from Burnett is exciting and overdue, as is the Criterion edition of To Sleep With Anger (which also contains a fascinating video of Burnett walking around Los Angeles with a fellow pioneering African American director, Robert Townsend). Burnett cemented his place in the filmmaking canon long ago with movies that still have the power to unsettle and transport audiences. His stories, told from a perspective that’s still sorely lacking in American cinema, wrestle with the dark allure of more old-fashioned times without feeling didactic. To Sleep With Anger lingers long after you’ve watched it and only deepens with repeat viewings; Burnett deserves the chance to offer that experience to viewers again and again.