The tensions in a black middle class family in Los Angeles are pulled to the breaking point in To Sleep with Anger (1990) when old family friend Harry (Danny Glover, in perhaps his finest performance), a charmingly devilish drifter from the Deep South with a history of trouble, arrives on their doorstep.
After the elderly Gideon and Suzie (Paul Butler and Mary Alice) graciously put him up, Gideon suffers a stroke and Harry slowly dominates the household, acting the country gentleman while attempting to lead everyone into temptation. The couple’s frustrated younger son, who is still called Babe Brother (Richard Brooks), falls under his spell and becomes increasingly bitter toward his successful older brother Junior (Carl Lumbly) and neglectful of his wife (Sheryl Lee Ralph), while the house is invaded by Harry’s no account friends.
The third feature by American independent filmmaker Charles Burnett, director of some of the great portraits of black families and black lives in 20th century America, draws from Southern folklore. Along with a devilish charm that tempts Babe Brother, Harry brings with him superstitious beliefs from an older culture. And there are suggestions of supernatural dimensions brought by the arrival of Harry; when Junior’s pregnant wife extends a hand to Harry, the baby kicks hard enough to stop her.
More importantly, To Sleep with Anger explores the collision of rural Southern Black culture with middle class African-American urban life, folk superstitions and remedies versus religion and modern medicine, and complicated family relationships in the modern world.
Vonetta McGee, Julius Harris, Sy Richardson, and Jimmy Witherspoon costar.
It won four Film Independent Spirit Awards, including best director and screenplay for Burnett and best actor for Glover, as well as a special jury prize at Sundance, and was added to the National Film Registry in 2017.
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To Sleep with Anger (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
To Sleep with Anger (The Criterion Collection) [DVD]
The acclaimed American indie made its disc debut in a Criterion special edition on DVD and Blu-ray mastered from a 4K restoration and presented with featurettes and a 2017 video tribute to Burnett.