To Sleep with Anger (dir. Charles Burnett, 1990) is a comic melodrama about an African American family from Mississippi that has lived in Los Angeles for thirty years. A family cousin (or friend—it’s not clear) whom no one has seen for decades appears at the door, and a happy reunion takes place. In LA the family has established a comfortable if modest middle-class existence in what appears to be an African American neighborhood. It’s not clear why they moved to LA three decades in the past, but one can guess that economic opportunity and freedom from discrimination and danger were the reasons. The family does have a better life. They don’t live in a word of rigidly enforced segregation. To some extent, blacks and whites in the film interact in a friendly way, as an early scene of a Lamaze class shows. But racial problems are not a direct focus. Problems of middle class life for a Mississippi-born African American family are. The husband and wife, Gideon and Suzie, are relatively content, but they worry over the things that many parents worry over—in this case, the resentment the older brother feels both towards his father as well as towards his younger brother. The father worries over the distance between himself and his older son, and resents that he doesn’t show up at family occasions, such as his mother’s birthday.
Harry’s appearance brings back to Gideon and Suzie memories of life in Mississippi. He brings disruption too. At first Harry (Danny Glover) seems to be an inoffensive country bumpkin visiting big city relatives. He wanders around their house, peering at and touching family photographs and possessions. He opens drawers to see what’s in them, reads private letters. This behavior gently characterizes Harry as an intruder, someone who means to intrude in a family’s private life. He otherwise behaves in a generally harmless if aimless manner.
We gradually notice that Harry loves to stir things up. His method are subtle. When Gideon and Suzie are away at church, he plays cards with the older brother and his wife. (Cards are forbidden in this churchgoing house). He constantly puts his hands on everyone—at first this seems to be simple affection but soon becomes something different, though what I’m not sure. When the younger brother slaps his wife and leaves a bruise, instead of encouraging him to apologize to his wife, Harry takes him on a walk over difficult rocks in a creek and then encourages him to leave LA and go back to Mississippi. There, he says, the man will see wild women beyond imagining. Improbably, the man is tempted. He offers to help him learn how to make money playing cards. He tells the man that the best way to get his wife back would be to find another woman—no man, he says, has only one woman. Instead of helping the family deal with their problems, he makes them worse. We also begin to learn things about his past, of people who, for whatever reasons, ended up dead after being around Harry.
Harry becomes the guest who won’t go away, who wears out his welcome. He grows increasingly an irritation. When he takes Gideon on a long walk, Gideon returns home exhausted, has a breakdown, and almost dies. He lies in a coma for three weeks.
The film focuses on the conflicts between life in the Deep South and life in LA. It can also be seen as a film about conflicting generational values. The parents retain many of the family and religious values they learned in Mississippi: Gideon loses his good luck charm early in the film; Suzie uses various folk remedies to treat him when he falls ill; they attend church regularly, raise chickens and garden, and place a strong emphasis on family togetherness. Their sons don’t feel and live the same way, especially the older brother, whose life has wandered astray. In subtle ways Harry aggravates these disruptions, brings people and ideas into the house that accentuate the differences: for instance, he brings into the house the high school boyfriend of Suzie, who later proposes to her when her husband lies near death.
When Harry dies suddenly of a heart attack, the family begins to recover. The two brothers make up. Father and son reach an uneasy truce. Gideon wakes from his coma. The county won’t send someone to retrieve Harry’s body, so the family and friends sit around, ignoring the body, talking and joking and feeling relieved and relaxed.
Harry is, literally or figuratively, the devil. He describes himself to Suzie as having both good and evil sides, and says that he’s unwilling to declare which side he favors. He embodies the growing family conflicts that come to a head in the film. When he is, at the end, effectively cast out, the family’s problems are exorcised.
The use of a family drama in a comic way to address important issues in African American life we have seen in the films of a director who must have strongly felt the influence of Charles Burnett: Tyler Perry, who inclines far more towards slapstick, parody, and broad humor.
To Sleep with Anger is entertaining, but there are defects: the screenplay is not consistently well written, the dialogue can seem wooden, and the pacing can be awkward. As Harry, Danny Glover is very good, but his performance is also unsettling, creepy. Other cast members are not always as effective, and sometimes lines are delivered in a stilted, lifeless way, as if they’re being read.