To Sleep with Anger
(Charles Burnett, 1990)

A scene from Charles Burnett's To Sleep with Anger {Photo: CIFF}

A scene from Charles Burnett's To Sleep with Anger {Photo: CIFF}

Charles Burnett’s To Sleep with Anger may not be as renowned as other groundbreaking African-American films, such as Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing or Burnett’s own debut Killer of Sheep, but it should.

The film vividly probes the lives of a small Californian family, where a series of unsettling events tie into the arrival of the patriarch’s southern friend Harry (played by Danny Glover, in what’s certainly one of the most terrifying portrayals of evil incarnate in cinema). A picture of breathless density, Burnett lingers on all the members of the family and their extended network, intertwining their narratives with a historically rich and specific Black experience. Novelistic in structure (passages resemble Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons), the film’s specificity to the Black experience takes its thematic ambitions – from its generational conflicts, the role of complacency, and the sacrosanct rituals and superstitions that are compromised through the passage of time – and announce them in new and exciting ways. Twenty-five years since its release and no film has measured up to Burnett's vision of cultural idiosyncrasies and marginalization as horror.

Essential