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
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