! Critic Judy Stone
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To Sleep with Anger

Ignore the drowsy title. "To Sleep with Anger," a wonderfully vivid depiction of a black family, ought to be called "To Awake with Pleasure," because it has both the rare ring of truth and an engaging touch of magical mystery. As a sly charmer who disrupts everyone's life, Danny Glover is magnetic in the best role of his screen career, but he's also supported by actors who rarely have this kind of opportunity to show what they can do. Charles Burnett, who wrote and directed, gave them a quietly powerful and original script that brings out the best of them.

When Glover's enigmatic Harry unexpectedly appears on the doorstep of old friends now living in Los Angeles, they welcome him warmly as a reminder of their youthful struggling years in the South, and invite him to stay as long as he wishes. Soon, he has a bunch of old pals trouping through the house and he manages to exacerbate family tensions with a well-honed mixture of humility, humor, guile and gall. At first, the malevolent layer to his character isn't apparent to the couple who have offered their hospitality.

There couldn't be two more generous people than Gideon (Paul Butler), a strapping retiree who now tends to his garden and raises chickens, and Suzie, a warm-hearted midwife — played with gentle appeal by Mary Alice — who acts as the family peacekeeper. She firmly believes in the old saw, "Never go to bed angry."

That's easier for her to say than for Gideon to obey. He's constantly exasperated by their younger son, Babe Brother (played by Richard Brooks). Babe, a bank clerk, and his stylish wife, Linda (Sheryl Lee Ralph), a realtor, find it convenient to dump their young son with the grandparents and slough off family chores. Junior (Carl Lumbly) and his pregnant wife (Vonetta McGee) are the responsible ones, but Junior and Babe are still locked together in sibling resentments about who was the favored son.

Babe, who always felt put down by his father, is easily seduced by Harry's ingratiating ways, and his confused attachment almost ruins his marriage. The one person who resists Harry from the beginning is Hattie, an old friend (Ethel Ayler) and a one-time swinger who has gone straight in the arms of the church. The by-play between Hattie and Harry is charged with an elusive current of attraction/repulsion. Harry is suave, but he's got a superstitious fear of being touched by a broom and he still relies on a "toby" (charm) to get him out of a jam.

His character, according to Burnett, is based on tales he heard from his Mississippi grandmother about a trickster, disguised as a friend or a charismatic buffoon "who comes to town to steal your soul and you have to trick him out of it." Marbles do the trick with Harry.

Although Glover's talent always has been obvious in such films as "Places in the Heart,""Witness" and "The Color Purple" - and his popularity dynamically demonstrated in the "Lethal Weapon" films - this is his most complex and compelling role. He also co-produced this film. All the promise the San Francisco actor showed in the Eureka Theater production of Athol Fugard's "Sizwe Banzi is Dead" is fully realized in the part of Harry. Lumbly, who was his ebullient co-star in that production, also demonstrates considerable power as the older brother.

Even the actors with minor roles as Harry's friends give their characters a spry originality, particularly Davis Roberts as timid old Okra Tate. When it looks as if Gideon will be a goner, Okra shifts into high gear. Although he'd hate to see that fate overtake his lodge brother, the possibility encourages him to propose somewhat prematurely to Gideon's prospective widow. It's a kick to watch Mary Alice send him packing.

All these relationships are handled by Burnett with assurance and style. That will come as no surprise to critics who praised his first independent low-budget film, "Killer of Sheep." It was just honored as one of 25 films selected by the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress as an outstanding work worthy of historic preservation. His abilities were further recognized when he won a prestigious MacArthur Foundation grant.

The way he brings ordinary lives into focus with so much understanding and sympathy in "To Sleep with Anger" confirms the fact that Burnett is a talent to be treasured. There is authority and maturity in every frame of this richly human comedy. It's a joy to see.

San Francisco Chronicle Ocober 26, 1990