Charles Burnett Reflects on To Sleep with Anger

February 26, 2021
Charles Burnett Reflects On <I>To Sleep With Anger</I>

TCM’s broadcast of Charles Burnett’s To Sleep with Anger (1990) is a rare chance to discover—or rediscover—an underseen masterwork (it only opened in 17 theaters nationwide) that The Atlantic in 2019 hailed as “one of the best movies of the 1990s.” The Arts Fuse called it “chronically underappreciated” and its director “one of cinema’s great underdogs.”

Released in 1990, To Sleep with Anger was Burnett’s most ambitious film yet after writing and directing two independent films, Killer of Sheep (1978) and My Brother’s Wedding (1983). Both utilized casts of non-professionals and were rapturously received by critics. That did not translate into big box office, but in 1990, Killer of Sheep was one of the inaugural 50 films inducted into the National Film Registry of films deemed to be “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.”

To Sleep with Anger joined it in 2017. The rich and resonate folkloric tale stars Paul Butler and Mary Alice as Gideon and his wife, Suzie, southern transplants in middle-class Los Angeles neighborhood South Central. Arriving unannounced on their doorstep is Harry (Danny Glover), an old friend from the South who insinuates himself into their lives and in the business of their two married sons, the dependable Junior (Carl Lumbly) and the rudderless Babe Brother (Richard Brooks). “You’re not like the rest of Gideon’s friends,” Babe’s increasingly estranged wife Linda (Sheryl Lee Ralph) observes. She has no idea.

To Sleep with Anger has lost none of its power to unsettle viewers as Harry’s worldview (“I don’t believe in sin, though there is good and evil”) undermines Gideon and Suzie’s family. Or is he just “clearing the waters?”

Burnett, 76, was perhaps the best-known director of the L.A. Rebellion, a group of UCLA film students that included Julie Dash, Billy Woodberry and Haile Gerima, and who shared with their New Hollywood counterparts’ a desire to remake he traditional studio system in their images. But instead of taking inspiration from the classic Hollywood directors, they were inspired by the more radical visions of world cinema.

Burnett spoke with TCM about defining Black film, the importance of being Danny Glover and why Burnett was willing to travel from South Africa to America to accept the Horton Foote Prize for writing.

One of the tenets of the L.A. Rebellion was to put onscreen images of Black life that Hollywood ignored. How does that relate to the setting of South Central in To Sleep with Anger?

Charles Burnett: We were all trying to define what a Black film is. What was the narrative we were supposed to be telling from our perspective, something that truly represents our neighbors and the people we grew up with and their concerns? So we tried to find something that relates to them other than something manufactured by people who have no idea what Black life is like. We were looking for stories that spoke to people of color told by people of color, things they hadn’t seen onscreen before that represents a common culture.

The L.A. Rebellion directors were at UCLA. Was there ever a meeting with aspiring directors at USC to share your visions?

CB: No, although I met John Singleton years later. I was trying to get into USC because it was closer to where I live, but it was too expensive. You had to enroll before you could apply for a loan. I needed to get a loan so I could get enrolled. UCLA said, ‘Come on over,’ and I’m glad I did. They gave you all the film you wanted and left you alone so you could make whatever film you wanted.

Was breaking in to Hollywood the dream?

CB: No, we didn’t have any cousins or relatives in the business. We knew it was a difficult path. We wanted to make films that spoke to the community. That was our first audience.

How did you become interested in directing?

CB: I wasn’t interested in making movies growing up. Strangely, though, I wanted to shoot a camera. A friend of mine had a Super 8 camera. I used to work at this car wash in Inglewood. He brought his camera and I shot this airplane flying overhead. That was the first time. What I did have an inkling for was photo journalism. I got out of that quickly. What happened was, I bought this old 35mm camera, and there was this poor lady who overdosed and I was just taking pictures of this woman who died in a doorway. This young girl who lived in the neighborhood—I think she was a related to the lady that died—she came to where I was and asked why I was taking pictures. I said something stupid, like, ‘Oh, it’s only for fun.’ She didn’t get angry. She just said, ‘Even in tragedies?’ It was like a knife in the heart. And that was the end of that.

But did you like going to the movies? What was your movie theater growing up?

CB: I went to see a lot of really good movies, just as a fan, at The Los Angeles, The Manchester, The Mayfair, The Century Drive-In, The Twin-Vue Drive-In. On television, they had the Million Dollar Movie. We saw all sorts of really good, quality films: a lot of Hitchcock, Shane, High Noon, Dracula, Frankenstein, King Kong.

Dracula. I wanted to ask you about that because when we first glimpse Harry, he is standing with his back to the viewer on Gideon’s doorstep. Later in the film, he says to Suzie, “You invited me in.” That reminded me of movie vampire lore that a vampire cannot enter a home unless they are invited.

CB: It’s a Southern folklore thing; people had evil spirits connected to them. My mother wouldn’t let people in the house because of bad karma. I didn’t believe it as a kid, but as you grow older, you think, ‘Maybe there’s something to it.’ So I put it in the film.

This was your first film in which you worked with professional actors. How did Danny Glover become involved?

I wrote Harry with another actor in mind. Danny said he wanted to read for Harry and I said, ‘Be my guest.’ (laughs). That opened up everything. All of a sudden it became a movie. (Glover also served as a producer.)

What was it like working with professional actors for the first time?

They were all great and gracious to me. One of the good things about working with professional actors is they know they’re job. If you want to make adjustments, they can change gears; you don’t have to spend a lot of time explaining something. In my previous films, I typecast actors so they were playing themselves in many ways.

Some [non-actors] would just come to the set when they wanted to. They were doing me a favor, so I had to leverage it. This one actor, he was sick and we had already shot stuff on him. He couldn’t make it and asked whether another person could take his place. I tried to explain it to him that it wasn’t like a baseball game where you can change pitchers in the middle. It was a foreign business to them. One thing I wanted to do with my earlier films was to demystify filmmaking to get kids in the community involved.

The ensemble in To Sleep with Anger is so rich; several of the characters could support their own films.

CB: You see the potential in what they can bring to a role; it makes you want to write for them. There are so many wonderful actors who don’t get a chance. They would come in for a reading and I was just blown away. I would ask a dumb question, like, ‘Why don’t we see more of you?’ These artists have so much to give; they can make a difference in how we see one another.

This was your second film to be inducted into the National Film Registry. Considering how the film was mis-handled and kept from being seen by a wider audience, this must have been especially gratifying.

CB: It was poetic justice in a way. When I was trying to get the film made with PBS, I had problems in trying to get them to understand what the film was about. They were twisting my arm. They pay you when you develop something and they pay you when you turn it in. And then they comment on it, and you make changes based on the comments. The check is always upstairs, which means they’re not going to pay you until you make these changes. They were nasty. Horton Foote had a film on PBS and it was similar in that characters were talking about old times in the South. They got on my case about that. They said, ‘You’re no Horton Foote.’ I asked for the film back.

In 2007, I was in South Africa finishing a film. I got this call from the states asking if I could attend an awards ceremony. I asked if someone could pick it up for me, and they said no. I was very frustrated because that’s a long trip. I asked what the award was and they said, ‘It’s the Horton Foote Prize’ for writing. I said, ‘I’ll be right there.’ (laughs)

To Sleep with Anger earned Independent Spirit Awards for Danny Glover as well as your direction and screenplay, and despite its theatrical misfortunes, it endures. It received the Criterion treatment a few years ago and it’s being featured on TCM.

CB: This business is all about rejection. You never know where you stand or whether a movie really works. I came up with the Civil Rights Movement. I never made films to be just entertainment. It was to have social impact. Film can be a tool of social change. I felt that was our responsibility.