The Awakening of ‘Anger’ 25 Years Later

This Quarter in Film History

To Sleep with Anger. Courtesy of Charles Burnett

by Edward Landler

This year, as part of its annual selection of fully restored classics, the 72nd International Venice Film Festival presented, along with Federico Fellini’s Amarcord (1973), Akira Kurosawa’s Red Beard (1965) and Sergei Eisenstein’ Alexander Nevsky (1938), among others, Charles Burnett’s To Sleep with Anger (1990) — the most recently made of all the dramatic features chosen.

Twenty-five years ago, on October 12, 1990 (seven days after its screening at the New York Film Festival), To Sleep with Anger premiered in Atlanta. It went on to play in only 17 more theatres around the country, grossing about $1.2 million — less than the movie’s $1.4 million budget. Nevertheless, the National Society of Film Critics named it Best Screenplay of the year, and Burnett received Independent Spirit Awards for Best Director and Best Screenplay, along with actors Danny Glover for Best Male Lead and Sheryl Lee Ralph for Best Supporting Female.

Despite this — and even though Sony Video Software, which financed the production and made a profit on VHS home video sales of the film during the 1990s — Anger has never had a DVD release in the US. Today, the only DVDs of the film in Los Angeles video stores are copies made for release in the UK by the British Film Institute in 2004.

Yet all this is secondary to the power and depth of the movie’s images and story. What begins as a middle-class family drama grows into a mystery when a friend (Glover) from the family’s now- distant Southern past suddenly appears. In turn, his disturbing presence foreshadows an imminent family tragedy. Sharpened by the film’s realist observation, the drama gives way to black comedy (no pun intended) exposing the persistence of American racial divisions. The final 20 minutes transcend underlying personal tensions to achieve nothing less than a state of grace.

To Sleep with Anger. Courtesy of Charles Burnett

The three generations of this family are people with recognizable attachments and aspirations. The conflicts they face — between resentment and reconciliation, freedom and responsibility, traditional outlooks and the pressures of contemporary society — are universal. The film conveys this universality through its rich and precise imagery, evoking the specific history, background and culture of its central family so that all viewers can identify with them.

One of the film’s lead actors, Sy Richardson, who also appears in Burnett’s My Brother’s Wedding (1983) and The Glass Shield (1994), came straight to the point in an interview at the time of its release: “To me, Charles is the only director I know that shows us African Americans like we really are.”

Born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1944, Burnett grew up in Watts and went to UCLA Film School. There he became one of a group of black filmmakers — including Haile Gerima, Billy Woodberry, Julie Dash, Ben Caldwell and others — who later became known as the LA Rebellion. Burnett’s first feature, Killer of Sheep, completed in 1973, found distribution in 1978. It was selected for preservation in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 1990.

In the mid-1980s, Burnett was offered an opportunity for funding and exposure through the Public Broadcasting Service and began developing a script based on a true story. To enhance the drama, PBS insisted that he alter the facts. Not wishing to distort a real story, he proposed an original fictional story, which became To Sleep with Anger.

“I submitted the script and they immediately wanted changes,” Burnett recently told CineMontage. “They wouldn’t send me any money to continue work on it until the changes were made…but they wanted to take the heart of the story out.”

The network intended the show for a mainstream audience and wanted the filmmaker to remove cultural details that reflected the African-American experience. In a letter to Burnett terminating their relationship, PBS wrote, “You’ll never be a writer.”

Meanwhile, fresh from completing Steve De Jarnatt’s Cherry 2000 (1987), producer Caldecot Chubb was looking for a new project, and screenwriter Michael Tolkin recommended that he see if Burnett had anything in the works. After reading Anger, Chubb actively started seeking backing for it. Then, in 1988, Burnett received a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant,” allowing him to further develop the project, and Edward Pressman came on as executive producer.

When Glover — at the height of his studio career after two Lethal Weapon movies (1987, 1989) — agreed to play the key role of Harry Mention, the visitor, he became the film’s second executive producer. A third executive producer, Harris Tulchin, joined by his law partner Thomas Byrnes (who became the second credited producer), secured financing from Sony Video. For filmmaker Burnett, the sweetest part of the deal was that Sony only required that the film be kept down to a marketable length.

As the project approached production, the three executive producers and the two producers were joined by line producer Darin Scott and three associate producers. This led to industry jokes about a low-budget picture needing nine producers to get made.

To Sleep with Anger. Courtesy of Charles Burnett

Shot entirely on location, the 28-day shoot (with three additional days for pickups) began in mid-June and continued through the end of July, 1989. The home of the family elders was a house in the West Adams area of South Los Angeles dating back to the first decade of the 20th century. The houses of their two sons’ families and their church were found nearby. The younger son’s home belonged to production designer Penny Barrett’s mother-in-law.

Barrett, for years a set decorator at MGM, had also worked on Burnett’s My Brother’s Wedding. Her careful selection of family materials provided the director with a full range of subtle touches to suggest the backgrounds influencing the characters’ lives. Similarly, costume designer Gaye Shannon- Burnett (the filmmaker’s wife) gave substance to their entire social network through attention to personal tastes and styles and the simple fact of wear over time.

With Mary Alice and Paul Butler coming to LA from New York to play family heads Suzie and Gideon, the director conducted one read-through of the script with the cast before production started. Given the work schedules of the LA-based actors, the shooting schedule was worked out based on their availability. Burnett rehearsed each scene with the actors on the day of shooting.

Filming on location produced its own unique difficulties. Burnett and cinematographer Walt Lloyd found and lit expressive compositions despite the tight setups demanded by the houses’ cramped interiors. Perhaps the biggest technical problems on location were the ambient sounds — helicopters, airplanes and the noises of an active LA neighborhood. Post-production supervisor Carol Munday Lawrence told CineMontage that, during the 21 weeks of post, 13 cast members had to come in over 10 days for ADR.

Lawrence also noted how one of those days underscored a social issue that still draws attention. Carl Lumbly, who played the older son, arrived late and angry to an ADR session. She recalled, “On the way over, he was stopped and detained by the police. He was driving an expensive car and knew this was a ‘DWB’ — Driving While Black.”

The film’s editor Nancy Richardson, ACE, started setting up and cutting scenes at Universal Studios when the shoot began. Working with her were apprentice (now ACE picture editor) Plummy Tucker, first assistant editor Lary Moten and, replacing him, Christi Moore.

This was Richardson’s second feature credit; her first had been Ramon Menendez’s Stand and Deliver (1988). Since Anger, she has worked on two other projects with Burnett — Selma, Lord, Selma (1999), a TV dramatization of the 1965 march, and The Annihilation of Fish (1999), a romantic feature with Lynn Redgrave and James Earl Jones.

During production, Burnett said he tried to keep the shooting down to two takes per shot; “… four takes was a luxury.” Richardson recalled that most scenes were ensembles, with four or five set- ups and the cutting ratio about eight-to-one. The editor said, “Charles has this way of getting you to do what he wants without telling you. You arrive at a new cut of a scene organically. He has the tones and sensibilities of the film in his head; he’s a keen observer. This cannot be taught.”

From the opening dream sequence, when flames erupt in a fruit bowl and rise from Gideon’s shoes over his body — without burning either the fruit or Gideon — the rhythms of picture, sound and music keep the viewer involved. Similarly, the editing builds a whole neighborhood through a succession of specific details and reveals character through cross-cutting from the family members at church to Harry, alone in their home, looking through their things. A larger sense of society is evoked when Suzie must go to the hospital, and long dissolves mark time passing in the emergency room as the numbers of patients multiply.

To Sleep with Anger. Courtesy of Charles Burnett

Music was also a major storytelling tool. From early on, Burnett wanted Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Precious Memories” to be a recurring element in the story, and blues singer Jimmy Witherspoon plays a friend who sings “See See Rider” at Gideon and Suzie’s fish fry for the newly arrived Harry. Along with a few other gospel and blues songs he originally had in mind, the director hoped to rely on old records to serve as a score. During the editing process, though, he realized that the tracks simply wouldn’t tie the story together appropriately.

After the director’s first cut was completed at the end of September, composer Stephen James Taylor came in and, said Burnett, “saved the day. He knew what the film was about.” Taylor fashioned an evocative background score with guitar and harmonica, performing both instruments himself. He has worked with Burnett on eight more projects since Anger.

Post-production was completed the week before Christmas, and To Sleep with Anger was screened publicly for the first time in January 1990 at the Sundance Film Festival, winning a Special Jury Award. The Samuel Goldwyn Company immediately acquired theatrical and TV rights and agreed to share print and ad costs with Sony Video.

Working with the Goldwyn Company, though, must have reminded Burnett of his relationship with PBS. The distributor wanted to change the title but executive producer Pressman fully supported the filmmaker on this and other issues that arose.

It also seemed to Burnett that Goldwyn geared its marketing toward art houses, booking the movie in theatres not usually frequented by black audiences. The film’s release in Washington, DC, though, was successful, with fellow LA Rebellion filmmaker Gerima — now a professor at Howard University — helping to bring out the African- American audience.

Some years later, despite Anger’s limited distribution, Burnett received an unexpected honor that gave him a genuine sense of personal vindication. In 2007, he was in South Africa making the docudrama Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation with Anger actors Glover and Lumbly. In the midst of production, he got a call from the Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration inviting him to come to Mississippi to receive its annual Horton Foote Award for Special Achievement in Screenwriting “for Southerners who have excelled in writing screenplays.”

Despite the distance, Burnett immediately agreed to attend the event. Accepting the award, he related his experience working on To Sleep with Anger with PBS 20 years earlier: “The PBS executives told me they ‘didn’t like long conversation scenes’ in their shows. I said, ‘Horton Foote has long conversations in his PBS projects.’ They replied, ‘You’re not Horton Foote.’”

Today, according to Anger executive producer Tulchin, with both the Goldwyn Company and Capitol Films (the film’s initial international sales company) no longer in existence, the status of distribution rights for To Sleep with Anger is “splintered” at best. Even though Sony provided a new print for a retrospective of the LA Rebellion films at the UCLA Film Archives in 2011, and has retained worldwide home video rights, it has done nothing to make the film available on DVD for American audiences.

Now, however, the film is attracting greater recognition for its authentic and moving perspective on American life. The Chicago International Film Festival screened To Sleep with Anger this October and honored Burnett with its Career Achievement Award “for his contributions to cinema.”

About Edward Landler 113 Articles
Edward Landler is a filmmaker, media educator and film historian. He made I Build the Tower, the definitive feature documentary on the Watts Towers, and is currently completing a cultural history of film. He can be reached at