In thinking about a topic for “The Ambitious Failure Blog-a-thon” on William Speruzzi’s [This Savage Art], I felt somewhat at a loss because I prefer to write about films I really like rather than films that I consider aesthetic failures. As a result, I’ve decided to interpret “ambitious failure” to include a really terrific film that has gone unrecognized for whatever reason. Charles Burnett is an example of a truly major American indie filmmaker, who has never had the career he deserved. His first feature, Killer of Sheep, was restored and re-released recently by Milestone Films – thirty years after it was made. Prior to the theatrical re-release, the film was only available in poor-quality 16mm prints, in which much of the dialogue was extremely challenging to decipher. I saw Burnett’s second film, My Brother’s Wedding, at Facets Multi-Media in Chicago when it was first released, but I’ve never had an opportunity to view it again because the film had no real distribution.
With To Sleep With Anger, starring Danny Glover, Charles Burnett was finally able to make a feature on a much larger budget, but the film failed at the box office, which I think was largely responsible for derailing Burnett’s career. The film came out on VHS, but it subsequently never made it to DVD in the U.S. The result is that Burnett’s first three feature films are not currently available on DVD in this country. Killer of Sheep obviously will be released on DVD later this year, but what about To Sleep With Anger? The fact that Burnett’s most commercial film has never even been available on DVD means that most people haven’t been able to see it. It is only in a commercial sense that I consider Burnett’s To Sleep With Anger to be an “ambitious failure.” Here is my blog about the film:
Spike Lee’s unexpected commercial triumph with She’s Gotta Have It (1986) helped pave the way for subsequent African-American filmmakers, such as Robert Townsend, John Singleton, Matty Rich, Julie Dash, and Darnell Martin. Spike Lee’s militancy had an important political impact, even as he soon left low-budget independent film for the privileges of larger studio productions. The success of She’s Gotta Have It showed that audiences were hungry for representations of African Americans other than Hollywood’s recycled racial stereotypes. Yet it was actually the overlooked work of Charles Burnett that anticipated the interest by future American independent writers and directors in exploring more racially and ethnically diverse subject matter.
Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1977), an elliptical portrait of a struggling slaughterhouse worker and his family in the South Central neighborhood in Los Angeles, represented a remarkable debut feature when it was released. Subsequently designated by the National Film Registry and given the equivalent of landmark status, Killer of Sheep proved to be very much ahead of its time. It belongs to that period before independent films managed to break into the mainstream. Burnett explains: “It was the 70s and it stayed in the can a very long time. There wasn’t any Sundance, no place to show a film and walk away with a three-picture deal.” In Killer of Sheep, Burnett creates a kind of poetic realism through an episodic series of vignettes about a slaughterhouse worker named Stan, whose job causes him to suffer from both insomnia and a growing sense of frustration with his dead-end life.
Killer of Sheep begins with a flashback from Stan’s childhood, then shifts to kids engaged in a spirited rock fight, which causes injury to one of the combatants. An analogy is made throughout Killer of Sheep between the harsh reality of children at play – as they leap from the top of buildings or deliberately throw dirt on freshly laundered clothes – and the sheep being slaughtered at the factory where Stan works. As Stan struggles against the travails of his day-to-day existence, various threats manifest themselves. The unattractive white female owner of the liquor store tries to proposition Stan by offering him a job, but Stan worries about the potential danger of getting shot in a hold-up. Two guys in leather jackets, Scooter and Smoke, attempt to get him to accompany them in some type of criminal activity involving a gun. When Stan’s wife overhears them, however, she confronts the two men by asking, “Why you always want to hurt somebody? Scooter replies: “That’s the way nature is. I mean, an animal has his teeth and a man has his fists. That’s the way I was brought up, god damn me.” Scooter’s equation of manhood with crime takes on bitterly ironic overtones because Stan’s job and personal troubles cause him to become alienated sexually from his wife. Stan never does go with Smoke and Scooter, but the scene underscores the constant temptations for someone like Stan, who, as Smoke points out, “don’t even have a decent pair of pants.”
Burnett made another feature, My Brother’s Wedding (1983) – financed by European TV – before he received the opportunity to work with a larger budget. To Sleep With Anger (1990), a family drama also set in South Central, wound up winning one of the three featured prizes at the 1990 Sundance Film Festival, part of a sweep for African-American films that year. In many ways, To Sleep With Anger represented Burnett’s first real chance to break into the mainstream. After two low budget features, this film had a sizable budget of over $1 million and the box-office appeal of Danny Glover, whose attachment to the project was the element that made financing even possible. The success of winning a prize at Sundance should have given the film additional momentum. Burnett, however, felt compromised by the fact that the film’s distributor demanded additional cuts. To Sleep With Anger’s distribution campaign also proved highly controversial when Samuel Goldwyn decided to market it as an art film rather than as a film that had significant appeal to black audiences. Despite generally positive reviews, the film’s failure at the box office turned out to have a negative impact on Burnett’s subsequent career. Although To Sleep With Anger was released on VHS, the film has never even been available on DVD in the U.S. All of this is rather unfortunate because To Sleep With Anger remains one of the most complex cinematic representations of middle-class African Americans ever produced within this country.
Burnett’s To Sleep With Anger explores the fragile nature of the African-American family, but it does so within an even wider historical and cultural context. The film begins with a wonderfully evocative dream-image of an older man, Gideon, dressed in his finest formal attire, sitting beside a table that contains a bowl of fruit. The camera pans to a portrait of a well-dressed woman, tilts down to the bowl of fruit, and then pans back to Gideon. Flames flare up in various places of this composition, conjuring up metaphorical notions of hell and the devil. The basic story of To Sleep With Anger concerns Harry, an old friend from back home, who turns up after thirty years and exacerbates the volatile, beneath-the-surface tensions that exist between and among various family members – Gideon and his wife Suzie, and their two grown children, Junior and Babe Brother – especially once Gideon becomes sick about forty minutes into the film. The film explores the effect of the past on migrating black families, especially those who move from rural, agrarian backgrounds, such as the American South, to more urban settings. To Sleep With Anger shows how folkloric myth and superstition continue to operate in the lives of African Americans despite changes in locale and social class. It underscores the extremely tenuous nature of the family unit, even one that has been able to rise to lower middle class status. Somewhat surprisingly, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting originally passed on the project primarily because of what Burnett termed “Its Blackness”– the folkloric elements he had incorporated into the script.
To Sleep With Anger is a family drama. Like Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into the Night, Burnett’s script creates conflicts between and among each of the family members, who, when they speak and act, do so within the context of an entire history of perceived slights and injustices. Even Suzie, who is the film’s most sympathetic character, manages to have real depth and complexity. While Gideon shows a clear preference for his older Son, Junior, Suzie defends her troubled younger son to Gideon, and tries hard to treat both of her children equally. Her tolerance also extends to Harry, far beyond the point where he deserves such consideration. It is actually Suzie who accedes to Harry’s desire to have the old-fashioned fish fry, an event which brings elements of their rural past back into their present lives with nearly disastrous consequences. Yet when Harry refuses to give a clear signal that he’s a good person as well as a friend, Suzie does not hesitate in asking him to leave her house. Nor does Suzie hide her irritation at Okra’s marriage proposal to her once Gideon becomes ill. Her response is to get up and leave, remarking that she has to feed her dog. It’s a devastating, indirect putdown. Nevertheless, Suzie is extremely polite to Linda when she shows up empty-handed at the party, even though her daughter-in-law’s self-centered careerism is a source of irritation. Linda, on the other hand, barely acknowledges Suzie.
Linda’s complaints about Babe Brother’s family have a definite class bias. This is especially apparent in the scene where Babe Brother tries to coax her to come inside rather than wait in the car. Both Babe Brother and Linda suffer from their professional ambition. He works as a loan officer and she as a real estate agent, which is why Sunny’s child-care has become a major source of irritation to Gideon and the other family members. Babe Brother and Linda’s desire for upward mobility comes with a price, which is that Sunny winds up spending too much time at his grandparents. Linda is the thoroughly modern black urban professional woman. When Harry asks her whether she had her baby at home, Linda tells him proudly that Sunny was born in a private hospital. She also takes a sideswipe at Pat and Junior, whose baby was delivered by a midwife. Linda comments, “Junior’s wife, she kept her afterbirth in the refrigerator. That’s why I don’t eat over there now.” Linda instinctively knows the right buttons to push in her husband during an argument. When she becomes miffed at Babe Brother for giving Sunny a sip of his coffee, she tells him, “Just because you were spoiled, don’t try to spoil Sunny.” This elicits a torrent of pent-up rage from Babe Brother.
Despite his professional ambitions and his marriage to the upwardly mobile Linda, Babe Brother nevertheless has been stigmatized as the bad son by his father and the lazy younger brother by Junior. Babe Brother resents always being compared unfavorably to Junior. He feels cheated out of his father’s love and respect and, as a consequence, his behavior becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Babe Brother precipitates the knife fight by refusing to help move his father’s bed from under the leaky roof. He tells Junior, “You always got the best of it around here and whenever Dad talks about ‘my son,’ it’s always you, so you fix the roof.” He also bristles over being called “boy” and being referred to continually as “Babe Brother” rather than by his real name, Samuel. Junior, on the other hand, labors under the burden of being the responsible older brother. Babe Brother also thinks his father picks on him. At the party, the two of them get into a heated argument. When Linda explains to Babe Brother that Gideon’s criticisms stem from love and concern, Babe Brother snaps back: “I don’t need that kind of love. And I don’t need to be reminded all the time that Big Mama was born in slavery. If you really care about me, just show me how to make money.”
There are many direct allusions to slavery in the film, including Harry’s reference to the Natchez Trace, a major slave route. While Babe Brother resents being reminded that Big Mamma was born in slavery, Gideon accuses Babe Brother of treating them like slaves by leaving Sunny with them for long periods of time. He raises the economic aspect of slavery by admonishing Babe Brother, “Don’t think you can get ahead by riding our backs.” When Junior confronts Babe Brother about his failure to help Suzie move Gideon’s bed, he alludes to Harry as being Babe Brother’s “master.” He tells him, “I betcha if your master told you to fix the hole in the roof, you would have rebuilt the whole damn house.” At the big party, Marsh, who has arrived with Hattie, confronts Harry about the deaths of several young men back home. Hocker’s death, it turns out, was made to look like a lynching by white folks. Marsh also describes another racial incident involving someone named Chick who, in fact, was tortured and killed by a white mob. Marsh describes the ensuing violence to Harry in graphic detail: “He killed a white man that owed him some money, and when they caught him, they tied him behind a car and they dragged him out of the hills back to town.”
There are also a number of references to Southern gentility, the flip side of Southern racism. Suzie describes Harry as having “good manners,” which remind her of her Southern roots. Harry remarks, “Well, you had to know how to act right where we come from. Now you had to know how to say ‘yes sir’ – ‘no sir.’ You had to know your place.” There can be no missing the irony in their nostalgia for the values of the Old South, where white gentility provided a mask for the evils of slavery and racism. As Nathan Grant comments, “What is portentously evil in this exchange is the idea that ‘knowing one’s place’ certainly carries with it racism’s demand that black folk observe proper behavior. This is an evil in itself that should of course make Harry and his manners suspect.” Harry’s own affability indeed often hides his true evil intentions. Hattie, in fact, comments about this aspect of Harry as she makes the case for Suzie to get rid of him. Harry explains his own behavior in terms of the effects of racism on the psyches of African-American males, just prior to Suzie asking him to leave her house. After Harry suggests that he fully expects to spend eternity in hell, he tells her, “If you were made to feel half a man, what do you think the other half is?” Such pointed references to slavery and racism in the film combine to emphasize how the break-up of the family unit as a result of slavery has impacted on the lives of African Americans to this very day.
Harry’s unexpected visit causes various tensions within the family to become inflamed. Harry has been described as being based on the trickster figure from African folklore. Burnett comments on this aspect of Harry’s character: “So I wanted to do a character who was based on a folkloric character – the trickster – who embodied this type of person who is seen as evil, but isn’t evil. The trickster figure always has so many dimensions, and is viewed in so many different ways. So I wanted the character of Harry to have that kind of ambiguity.”Although there is a certain degree of ambiguity in Harry’s character, it seems pretty clear that, at least allegorically, he represents the devil. Harry deliberately gets up too late to go to church and then proceeds to plays cards with Babe Brother instead. He ridicules Junior and Pat’s altruism and volunteer work as well as Hattie’s religious transformation. He even makes Gideon the soup that seems to worsen his condition. Although it is left ambiguous within the actual text – Harry seems to be looking to add something to the soup before giving it to Gideon – there is at least the possibility that Harry has poisoned Gideon. Harry’s total ascension to being a surrogate father figure within the family coincides with Gideon’s illness – a point that Hattie underscores to Suzie in making the case for getting rid of him – and it is only after Harry dies that Gideon’s health returns. Burnett comments in an interview, “You never really see Harry do anything, it’s all just rumor.” Although there is some truth to this assertion, Harry does make a deliberate attempt to break up Babe Brother’s family, and he also gives him the knife which will be play a part in the fight with Junior, and in causing Suzie’s subsequent injury. Afterwards, Babe Brother describes the experience as the equivalent of being in hell, and Suzie even cuts Gideon’s story short by commenting that she doesn’t want to hear any stories about “colored people being in hell” and raises her injured hand as proof.
The women in the film all develop a strong aversion to Harry eventually, because Harry represents a threat to the stability of their families. When Babe Brother vacillates about returning back home, Harry’s sexism rises to the surface: “I know your mind is on your wife, but you should never treat a woman as an equal. You want to get your wife back, get another woman.” Earlier, when he is confronted by Suzie who demands to know the kind of person he is and whether he’s a friend, Harry avoids giving her a direct answer. Instead, he resorts to metaphor: “Like that boy next door playing his horn. If he was a friend, he would stop irritating people, but if he stops practicing, he wouldn’t be perfect at what he does someday.” Harry doesn’t deny he’s evil. In fact, he merely suggests that he’s trying to become more perfect at it. But moments later, we see his better side. Harry remarks, “Suzie, I’m not a bad fellow; I just like to have a good time.” He also gives her a picture of his son, and adds, “I’ll say my so-longs to Gideon before I leave. Suzie, I truly wish that he will get well.”
Harry also clashes with Hattie, the former sinner who is now saved. When they first meet, there is an initial awkward silence between them, but Harry quickly takes the offensive by alluding to the fact that Hattie used to work in her mother’s house of prostitution. Harry initially acts like a polite gentleman at the start of the scene by pulling out the chair and seating Hattie, but Harry’s subsequent actions have a lascivious element as he comes behind Hattie and leans in closer to her, even placing his hands on her suggestively, while she remains embarrassed and unresponsive to his advances. Harry’s disparaging remarks about her deceased mother clearly wound Hattie. It causes her to fight back verbally against Harry, leading to an escalating exchange of insults. Hattie finally responds, “An empty wagon makes a lot of noise. You tappy head, you ain’t worth the salt you put in greens.” Harry likewise has nothing but scorn for Hattie. To him, she is still a prostitute, but in different clothes. Despite her having found religion, Hattie is not beyond suggesting later to Suzie that poisoning Harry would be a good means of disposing of him. Some of the ambiguity in Harry’s character which appears in the original published script in Scenario has been cut out of the final film version, as has other exposition relating to the wider community of people portrayed in the film. Burnett claims these cuts were determined by commercial considerations having to do with the film’s distribution, but he also comments about the differences between the written script and the actual film: “I mean, a script requires a lot of exposition to make it work; a film doesn’t. A lot of that ends up getting in the way of the rhythm of the film that somehow establishes itself after you put it all together in the editing room.” Yet, even with these cuts, To Sleep with Anger still unfolds at a fairly slow pace by commercial standards, as evidenced by its long first act and the early climax, involving Harry’s accidental death, in the final act. The resolution lasts for eleven minutes. The tone of the film also shifts as Gideon recovers from his illness and the family reestablishes its sense of equilibrium while waiting for the county to cart Harry’s body away.
Roger Ebert, one of the most sympathetic critics of non-mainstream films, complains about the pacing and the lack of dramatic climax of To Sleep With Anger. He writes: What should be a coiled film, exploding at the end, is one where the final act releases our impatience rather than our tension. There are good things in this movie, but too much time in between them.” Harry’s death might normally be considered a kind of deus ex machina – an artificial means of resolving the story – but Burnett has made both luck and superstition so much a part of the narrative that this does not seem a contrivance. Harry could have just as easily left with his pals to go back home, and that would have been that, because he’s already become an ostracized figure within the family by the time he slips on Sunny’s marbles and dies. His death, in fact, has been prefigured by Sunny touching Harry’s shoes with a broom – a sign of bad luck – when Harry first arrives.
Besides its leisurely pace and flattening of the dramatic arc in the final act, To Sleep With Anger maintains the overall feel and texture of an independent film in other ways, especially by creating a densely layered narrative that exists on several different levels. Burnett explains: “One of the things that got me into this business was trying to make realistic movies but going beyond and behind. What appears isn’t what’s there in a certain sense. Trying to reach beyond and behind, that’s where you go off-center somehow.” Burnett’s dialogue in To Sleep With Anger represents one example of Burnett going “beyond and behind” realism. Steeped as the characters are in past resentments, the conversations are embedded with subtext. Nothing any character says can be taken at face value. Harry, in particular, speaks largely in riddles. Every response becomes an opportunity for him to play “devil’s advocate” by attempting to turn good deeds, religious transformation, or someone’s deep-seated anger – as in the case of Babe Brother – to his own debased ends. Burnett’s dialogue is deeply resonant and highly indirect; it is full of aphorisms, quotations, metaphors, and allusions to African-American culture and history. Conversations between characters, such as those between Harry and Hattie, often take the form of a verbal sparring match. All of Burnett’s characters, including even Suzie, prove to be masters of the putdown.
Like Killer of Sheep, To Sleep With Anger employs a kind of symbolism and ambiguity more generally associated with art cinema. Burnett also infuses his domestic drama with a visually poetic quality usually not found in this genre. The powerful opening image of Gideon’s heaven-and-hell dream sets the tone for what follows and serves a striking example of Burnett’s visual sense. Burnett also provides poetic, slice-of-life transitions between scenes, such as shots of the neighbor boy’s pigeons flying through the neighborhood and the off-key sounds of the young trumpet-player. The fact that other small details were excised from the script, either during filming or in the editing room is not a novel development. For a fundamental tension between independent artistic visions and the perceived norms of the commercial marketplace has existed from the very beginning of the American independent feature film movement – all the way back to John Cassavetes’ Shadows. It is that same demand, as Burnett puts it, “to get it tight, streamlined: establish that rhythm that would keep the audience interested: you know, suck ’em in and spit ’em out at the end.” To its credit, To Sleep with Anger ultimately resists that tendency, which is probably one reason why, as critic Armond White points out, Charles Burnett still remains “the least well-known great American filmmaker.”