Film Review – To Sleep With Anger (1990. Criterion Collection)

To Sleep with Anger is about a suburban African-American family living in Los Angeles who receive a house guest by the name of Harry (Danny Glover), whose presence causes a stir and more trouble than the family first anticipated before giving him such a warm welcome. Soon after Harry arrives, cracks start to show in the family’s already troubled home life and as things get worse, Harry keeps on doing what he’s always been doing as if nothing else has happened. However, Harry’s presence may or may not be the biggest cause of the family’s problems.

From renowned director Charles Burnett comes the story of a modern African American family who still keep some of their roots firmly in the south. Glover plays Harry with an old-fashioned charm and is deceptively innocent among all the things that happen around him. He places his feet firmly at the kitchen table and becomes the house guest from hell but in a realistic way that neither plays him as the butt of the joke nor the evil intruder that he could have been portrayed as in other films. Instead things tend to happen around Harry, whether he’s to blame or whether he is a good influence is left up to the audience to decide and Burnett paints a realistic portrayal of a bustling family unit with a great performance by Glover at the centre.

Harry’s old ways make the family and the audience confront their views on religion, modernity, tradition and superstition as the old meets the new and the need for financial gain goes up against the values of the older generation of family and respect. Once greeted with lukewarm reviews, To Sleep with Anger has been re-evaluated through the years and given the respect it deserves as a masterpiece depicting a realistic portrayal of an African American family.

Burnett shows a wide range of characters from the old to the very young and gives them all their own personalities and faults. The tensions that rise between them don’t feel forced or contrived but instead make the audience feel like they are watching a slice of America and something that feels like it may resonate throughout the country. As the events of the film take place, the audience is never led in a particular way but instead they are encouraged to draw their own conclusions as to how the things were allowed to happen and why they got to where they were in the first place. All the while Harry is a floating influence among the family and the extent to which Harry has led the family is entirely left to the audience’s imagination as it seems there is more than meets the eye when it comes to how close the family were to falling apart.

Joel Fisher

Drama | USA, 1990 | 12 | Blu-Ray | 25th March 2019 (UK) | Criterion Collection | Dir.Charles Burnett |Danny Glover, Mary Alice, Vonetta McGee, Richard Brooks, Sheryl Lee Ralph

New, restored 4K digital transfer, approved by director Charles Burnett, with 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray
New interview program featuring Burnett, actors Danny Glover and Sheryl Lee Ralph, and associate producer Linda Koulisis
A Walk with Charles Burnett, a new hour-long conversation between Burnett and filmmaker Robert Townsend that revisits Burnett’s films and shooting locations
Short video tribute to Burnett produced for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Governors Awards ceremony in 2017

PLUS: An essay by critic Ashley Clark
New cover by Charly Palmer