Charles Burnett’s To Sleep with Anger (1990) is an odd little movie — and a bit too leisurely paced — that was largely overlooked on its original release, but has come to be associated with a renaissance in black filmmaking of the era. Even at that, it’s a somewhat unusual work that deals — in somewhat unusual ways — with aspects of black life that are rarely addressed. The story concerns a moderately comfortable black family in California who have more or less shed their roots with and ties to the poverty of the rural South from which they came. But have they really? There’s still a strain of the old ways lingering over them — patriarch Gideon (Paul Butler, Tadpole) looks for a misplaced “magic” charm early in the film.
Their world is disrupted when an old friend from the South, Harry (Danny Glover), shows up on their doorstep claiming their hospitality. There are sinister hints about Harry’s past and he has a knack for sowing discord. He may, in fact, be the devil — or at least one of his minions. Or then again, Harry just may be an expression of the past calling to mind the ways and beliefs the family thinks they’ve left behind them. The film is clever enough that it’s open to various readings, but it’s made in such a way that it at least tends to suggest something of the fantastic no matter what Harry is or isn’t. The centerpiece of the film is Danny Glover’s performance as Harry. He’s at once impossible and delightful, a character who is as charming as he is rude and as rude as he is charming. An interesting film made a little more so by his performance.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke