Sunday, June 20, 2021

To Sleep With Anger



Writer/director Charles Burnett

Burnett with Danny Glover (left)

Burnett (center) surrounded by the cast


















TO SLEEP WITH ANGER              A-                                                                                        USA  (101 mi)  1990  d:  Charles Burnett

The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.                                                                            —William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun, 1951

A curious hybrid of a black American film, one that views the modern Los Angeles landscape with an eye on the past, totally aware that their roots are in the Deep South, yet separating themselves from the mythical folklore that arose out of slavery days.  The film is an enchanted yet thoroughly understated depiction of the contradictions of being black in America, one of the few with no apparent references to an urban ghetto, no drugs, no gangs, no guns, no policemen, no hookers, and no rap or hip-hop soundtrack, showing the extent to which black lives have been stereotyped elsewhere.  With aspirations running into a wall contending with a predominately white America, there is a deep connection with where you came from and a special significance paid to historical roots, including what was once an illiterate culture, where slaves were deprived of education and even reading books, relying upon oral traditions, fables, and symbols, creating their own customs and mythology, where the modern era vantage point offers so many more opportunities, yet connections to black heritage include the memories of grandparents and those family members who came before, describing things that bear a resemblance to witchcraft, to a spiritual realm where the ancestors live, providing an unsettling depiction of life in a Jim Crow era where lynchings still occurred, and where people had run-ins with local police, and bad blood between various members of families.  People may still view what happened with deep prejudice, still casting blame for unnecessary deaths that occurred, carrying their disturbing recollections over into the present, where bearing grudges doesn’t begin to describe it, as some still live under the shadow of omens and spells, believing nothing ever happens naturally, that good luck charms really exist, and that ancient remedies are still needed.  This is a family film that suggests the ancestors are angry, bearing an ominous, near Biblical significance on the living, where prior sins need atonement and perhaps a bit of mercy, all of which suggests we need to put our differences aside and live better lives.  The idea behind the film is a reflection on what constitutes black consciousness, a mosaic constructed from fragmented memories, where we remain connected as a people, though deep understandings about ourselves are rooted in a strange mysticism that may have lost its potency through the passing years, that may go back to superstitions and folklore brought from Africa, where this film reminds us of deep connections that are on the brink of extinction, yet remain relevant in our lives and still powerful enough to remember.  Between the 1890’s and 1910, large groups of black Americans migrated to Los Angeles from Texas, Shreveport, New Orleans, and Atlanta to escape the racial violence and bigotry of the South.  The great migration of the 1920’s saw major populations of the black South move to northern cities like Detroit, Chicago, and New York, largely bypassing Los Angeles.  It was during the Second Great Migration in the 1940’s that the most significant shifts in the city were made.  During World War II defense production skyrocketed in Los Angeles with more than $11 billion dollars in war contracts, which called for labor in the automobile, rubber, and steel industries, where the black population in Los Angeles leaped from 63,700 in 1940 to 763,000 in 1970 (The Great Migration: Creating a New Black Identity in Los ...). 

Burnett was born in Mississippi and moved to the Watts area of southern Los Angeles at an early age, a neighborhood with a strong southern migration influence, where the Watts riots of 1965 played a prominent role in his upbringing, having witnessed the burning down of the neighborhood, while Watts is also notorious for the beating of Rodney King in 1991 and the subsequent outbreak of violence and looting that followed the acquittal of the police officers responsible.  Burnett became known to the film going public through Thomas Andersen’s extraordinary documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003) which identified black independent filmmakers like Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1979) and Billy Woodberry’s Bless Their Little Hearts (1984), both key figures of the L.A. Rebellion, black and brown UCLA film students from the 70’s dedicated to providing a more authentic black perspective, with both creating a new aesthetic countering false and stereotypically inaccurate Hollywood images, with a focus on working-class black families living in South Central Los Angeles living from paycheck to paycheck, which comes across as near documentary truth without an ounce of artifice about the black experience.  Winner of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 1988, this is among Burnett’s most accessible films, his first to find a distributor and the first to feature professional actors, given a higher budget, made for an estimated cost of $1.4 million, but only after partnering with actor and executive producer Danny Glover, who was immensely popular after making the first two Lethal Weapon movies in 1987 and 1989 which earned $100 million and $200 million dollars in net profit respectively.  But this film was only released in 17 theaters nationwide, with the director conceding it “offered no apparent reference point for white Americans,” so like all of this director’s films they are criminally underseen, despite the fact he may be the best black American director working today, or in the past 30-years, though Barry Jenkins has recently given him a run for his money, however he’s rarely mentioned in the same breath as Spike Lee or John Singleton.  Opening in a foreshadowing dream sequence, we hear the gospel sounds of SISTER ROSETTA THARPE - Precious Memories [1956 ... YouTube (2:52) and we’re immediately attuned to the fact this is a memory play, a summoning of ancient spirits, featuring Paul Butler (remember him? always superb) as Gideon, a retired laborer living comfortably in a house of modest means in Los Angeles with his devout wife Suzie (Mary Alice), an old married couple with family photographs seen scattered around their home, retaining signs of their old-style rural upbringing by raising chickens in the backyard, with church figuring prominently as the moral center of their lives.  Like Cain and Abel, they have two distinctly different older sons, Junior (Carl Lumbly), the favored son, hard-working, mature, and responsible, married to Pat (Vonetta McGee, as they were in real life), and the more insecure, perpetually disrespected Baby Brother (Richard Brooks) who grows increasingly hostile, remaining susceptible and confused about his identity, torn between a disconnected black heritage and capitalist aspirations, easily seduced into doing the wrong thing, troubled by what he perceives as overt favoritism shown to his older brother, both seen arguing incessantly while crying the blues that his father is always picking on him, criticizing every selfish move he makes, including his rocky marriage to Linda (Sheryl Lee Ralph) where both work long hours, largely avoiding his paternal responsibilities with his young son, who always seems to be staying with the grandparents, picked up at all hours of the night, never at any designated time, continually shuffled back and forth in a routine that suggests taking advantage.  

Set in a place with a very strong sense of family and community, which may no longer be the norm, the film offers a unique black perspective on their historical connections to the Deep South, where unmitigated racial violence consumed the lives of nearly all descendents of southern slaves and sharecroppers, creating an invisible and near underground black culture, like a parallel universe remaining undetected from the neighboring white community, which makes this film an utter revelation, operating on the premise, “You don’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been.”  What sets the gears in motion is Gideon’s loss of an old charm, a toby, an ancestral talisman, believing it will help protect his family.  As if on cue, an old friend Harry (Danny Glover) that he hasn’t seen in thirty years from Mississippi mysteriously arrives at his door, where he is wholeheartedly welcomed and embraced and urged to stay as long as he likes, evoking an overpowering nostalgia for the old ways.  Harry is like a figment of the imagination, a folkloric character, a trickster and master manipulator, deceptive and dishonest, the embodiment of evil, yet isn’t evil, a multi-dimensional presence that exists in a realm of ambiguity, hiding behind a façade of Southern graciousness, whose enduring charm and sly smile make people see what they want to see, where references to mythical crossroads are legendary in Robert Johnson blues songs, seemingly making a deal with the devil, where his presence is a throwback to an earlier era, symbolic of the old days, constantly reminding people who they were back in the day, yet constantly stirring up trouble wherever he goes, as trouble just seems to follow him, having a hugely unsettling and destabilizing effect on the entire community.  Baby Brother, on the other hand, is enthralled by his overwhelmingly brash male confidence and bravado, filled with stories about the old days, as ghosts of the past come perilously close to haunting and disrupting the present.  Bringing back the traditional fish fry, the presence of corn liquor seems to bring people out of the woodworks, strange, disreputable people we hadn’t seen before, spending the night telling tall tales, while laughing and drinking, and even singing songs, as we hear the sounds of LITTLE MILTON - ANNIE MAE'S CAFE YouTube (5:06) and Bobby Blue Bland - Walking, Talking & Singing The Blues ... YouTube (3:55), with Jimmy Witherspoon actually making an appearance onscreen singing “See See Rider,” To Sleep With Anger – Jimmy Witherspoon YouTube (1:23), with a guitar played by musical composer Stephen James Taylor.  Urging a former lover Hattie (Ethel Ayler) to perform some old juke joint songs, recalling her mother ran a home of ill repute back home, but she defers, righteously offended by his insinuations, telling him, “You remind me of so much that went wrong in my life,” perhaps the only one to see right through him, as she’s been saved, having found religion, and instead can be heard singing an eloquently slow rendition of a gospel song, ETHEL WATERS Gospel Spiritual. Church , Stand By Me , Mammy YouTube (3:56).  Casting a spell on an otherwise peaceful household, tempers flare, smoldering tensions brew, large knives are unleashed, with people inexplicably struck down, though it’s hard to tell if by God or the Devil, as Burnett beautifully interweaves evocative strains of blues and gospel traditions mixed with images of poetic realism, easily moving between tragedy and comedy, featuring a constantly moving camera by Walt Lloyd.  Thrown into the mix is a young kid next door (Burnett’s son) heard practicing the trumpet, continually making screeching sounds and playing off-key, where at least in the eyes of Harry he’s nothing but a nuisance disturbing the neighborhood, but his finally on-key music melodically soars over the closing credits, To Sleep With Anger Ending Credits (Ramon Flores Trumpet Solo) YouTube (3:57), bringing symmetry and harmony to what feels like a spiritual road movie, constantly following the wrong path, continually swerving off course, yet ultimately finding its way. 

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