Retrospective: Writer-Director Charles Burnett on ‘To Sleep with Anger’

This weekend, New York’s Film Society at Lincoln Center hosts a revival of Charles Burnett’s To Sleep with Anger, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. The Sundance success (which won the special jury prize) received high praise when it screened at festivals, and earned Burnett awards from the National Society of Film Critics (for best screenplay) and the Independent Spirit Awards (for best director and best screenplay). In total, the film received 7 independent Spirit nominations and won four, including best supporting actress for Sheryl Lee Ralph and best actor for Danny Glover. Yet despite that success, the film failed at the box-office and was often hard to find, resulting in its overlooked status. Burnett had made two features before To Sleep with Anger, Killer Sheep in 1978 and My Brother’s Wedding in 1983; and went on to direct The Glass Shield (1994) and The Annihilation of Fish (1999), along with many documentaries. But To Sleep with Anger is often considered his most accessible work for general audiences. Starring host of skilled character actors including Paul Butler, Mary Alice, Richard Brooks, Carl Lumbly, Vonetta McGee, and Ralph, they play a Los Angeles family put to the test by the arrival of Harry (Glover) an old friend of the family’s from the south…and possible other worldly demon arrived to collect one of their souls. I spoke with Burnett about the film and the restoration which premieres the weekend.

The screenings this weekend will include Q&As so you’ll hear from audiences right away. Do you feel reactions will be different from when people saw it in theaters during the initial release?

One of the big reasons I’d like to see the film redistributed, and why I’m happy it’s been restored and we’re doing this, is it wasn’t well distributed when it first came out in theaters. It was handicapped by the number of theaters it came in and mismarketed, although it got a lot of critical acclaim and attention at Sundance. But I know a lot of people who never saw it in the theaters?

Do you meet a lot of people who saw it on video or television in the years since?

I didn’t hear that much, but one of the things I’ve hear a lot is, it’s being used in a lot of classes. I meet a lot of people who say “I teach that film in my class” or “I saw it in my class.” And I also meet a lot of people who have a memory of seeing it, or say “that was one of my favorite films, but I haven’t seen it in a while” because it was hard to find. They would ask where they could find a copy.

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To Sleep With Anger, Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films

I think I first saw the film in high school, I might have actually seen it in a class. But reading that the film wasn’t a successful release, I watched the trailer. And it doesn’t represent the movie that well. Why do you think this film so hard for them to market and promote?

Trailers are always hard to make for a movie, and a lot of them are better than the movie. So I’m not surprised that you felt that way. As for the problem with marketing and distribution, Metro-Goldwyn didn’t want our hands in the mix at all once they got the film. They were going to market it the way they wanted to. They were going to use the posters they wanted. They were going to make their kind of trailer. And at a certain point, it’s just useless. I don’t remember seeing the trailer, and I’m glad I didn’t because it would have just been another source of depression and frustration.

The critical reception the movie received was very positive, and the movie really had to be championed by critics to get the word out to people to see it. Did you hear from some of those critics who really wanted to see the movie succeed?

I heard from some of the critics who really liked the film. I heard from one writer in San Francisco who really loved the movie and wanted to write an article about it. But his editor wouldn’t accept his positive review. He called to tell me and said he didn’t know why they wouldn’t run the review. He thought they wanted a negative review of the film. It was so strange.

Do you recall what inspired the original premise for the movie?

It came to me while working on a film about a young girl who had been killed in my neighborhood. It was a true story, and I was developing it with an organization that promised to be an alternative to Hollywood films. But as I would hand them pieces of the script while developing it, they kept asking me to make changes. It got to the point that I disagreed with them and wanted to leave the project, because it was based on a true story, so making those changes would have been unethical. And I got so frustrated, I wanted to make something completely different, that wasn’t based on a true story. So I developed this idea which was totally fictional, and even magical. And I developed the story around this Georgia folk-lore character called Harry Man, a character that disrupts a family in trouble. It’s a Faustian-like story, about a man bargaining for this young man’s soul. And to get his soul back, the family has to come together and outwit him. And Harry Man in the folk-lore is a character who comes upon a family in a dark stormy night, and tricks someone into giving up the most important part of themselves. So the film was based on that. I grew up in Mississippi, and heard a lot of folk tales like that. I didn’t come from a middle-class family like the family in the film, but the family traditions are very similar to mine. And I wanted to make a movie like that. We don’t see that part of American life very often in films.

I think we’re all used to hearing the old traditions were a time when people were better behaved in the early generation and showed more respect. And yet Harry is still stuck in the past and he’s the source of the problems for a family that’s left the traditions they were raised with and are a very modern family. Why did you make Harry a character who’s almost front the past?

Growing up, I always dreamed about the past as something I wished I could have experienced. They told stories about adventure and became bigger than life. And I thought this, in spite of being from a Mississippi family and hearing my mother say she’d never want to go back. And my uncle said he hated it because he would ride the rails but knew that had he been caught, he would have been lynched back then. But at the same time, they would tell these stories and talk about people that were so vivid and entertaining. They told these stories to compensate for the hardships they lived through, and turned them into fables. These old sayings they had were like Blues, which I used to listen to as a kid. Old kids would be listening to the Blues and I knew I liked them, but didn’t understand them. I didn’t understand what they were singing about until I was an adult, and then I realized how much value the lyrics in the Blues had. And how much wisdom those folk tales have. Harry talks about the past and never really moved away from it. Gideon took his sons and moved away and created his own family and his own home. But Harry lost his children and found himself stuck in the past and felt like he’d become half a man, which prevented him from become a productive person. To Sleep with anger means to go through life with this pain and anger which never really leaves you.

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To Sleep With Anger, Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films

The title is so resonate because it sounds like something we’ve all heard in our lives, but that you can’t place from literature.

It’s based on a term from the Bible. I paraphrased it and someone asked me where I got the title from, and I said I’d heard it said by people growing up. And a woman spoke up and told me where the original phrase was in the bible. But for the life of me, I can’t remember where. But I knew people who used the term a lot.

When thinking of the title were you thinking of it in terms of Harry or Babe Bro (Richard Brooks’ character)?

It was Harry, because he’s the character the fable’s about. All the things he’s experienced, the racism and injustices and loss, have turned him into a man who sleeps with anger and that’s ruined his spirit. He never got over those hardships. Harry’s kind of based on my uncle, who was also a person who never got over the things he suffered through and the anger ate away at him.

The film uses magical realism very sparingly, so it’s always on the edge of what is or isn’t real. Almost like you’re seeing unbelievable things on screen from the corner of your eyes. Where you concerned about going too far with that element?

We always wanted those moments to feel possible. We wanted the audience to be asking if Harry was from the dark side or some mythical character, or someone who came into the house and things happen around him. As a kid, when I’d hear that someone was bad luck or he’s no good, I’d look at them and think, “They seem fine to me.” But I’ve since met people who just seem to be followed by bad luck, and can’t completely discount those feelings. But the danger is when people look different or sound different or suffer from some defect, and people ascribe evil or bad luck to them.

When you were doing the casting, how did Danny Glover come up as a posibility?

We heard that Danny didn’t want to play older parts anymore, but we gave him the script anyway. And he read it and was so interested, he said he’d take any part. But then he said “but I’d like to read for Harry” which surprised me. So I never told him we thought he’d say no because it was an older part. And Danny was great and just perfect in it. But he also helped secure the funding and gave us access to more actors.

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In your previous films, you cast non-professional actors. Was this a case where you wanted the opportunity to work with professional actors?

On this film, I needed professional actors, because we didn’t have the time to work with non-actors. When you have time to film, you can get people to do what you need. But it takes more work to get those performances out of them. And this time we had a budget and schedule we had to work within. We needed a competition bond on this film, which required us to have professional actors. And then there’s the commercial thing. We didn’t hire movie stars, except for Danny, but all the actors were recognizable actors who could be counted on to sell the picture.

And a lot of the actors were known for their stage work. Did you get pressure to hire bigger names?

They all had more than enough experience, and they all had tape. So I could go to the producers and give them a list of their credits and show them a clip of their work as proof. And they’d all received good reviews for their work. Mary Alice and Paul Butler had a lot of stage work, Carl was doing a lot of TV, and Sheryl Lee Ralph had starred in Dreamgirls. So they all brought with them a professionalism. And then we hired a lot of actors who weren’t working very much, but were professional actors. The actors who got smaller parts were people I didn’t know about or didn’t realize I’d seen their work before. And then when they came in, they just blew me away too. DeForest Covan and Davis Roberts were so amazing, but I didn’t really know their work before. And then I said “why haven’t I seen you in more.” But of course I knew the reason, they don’t get the opportunities, even though they had the talent. But seeing them come in and read shocked me, it was one of the sad things about making this movie. Realizing how under used they had been.

When you see that, and you know a lot of the people you’re seeing won’t get this kind of opportunity again, does that inspire you to make more films and write more roles for them?

Well, first I probably have a selfish reaction and think, “There’s a lot of talent out there that’s eager and wants to work.” There’s far more talented and capable actors out there than we think if we just look. It opens the door to a lot more ideas.

Once you had the cast in place, did you make adjustments after you saw what they were doing and how they were playing the characters?

No, the script was pretty much as it was. The only difference were the way people read the lines and the emphasize they gave certain things, that I didn’t expect. I was surprised by some of their interpretations. Like when Mary Alice was in the kitchen and tells Danny he has to leave, she really seemed to feel bad and is sad about doing it. And that wasn’t in the script, that was how she choose to play it. And her performance is just amazing. They just created a kind of magic with that scene.

Let’s talk about Mary Alice, who I think gives an amazing performance. She is an actress who has this very soft, gentle voice, but can be a very tough, strong woman. And I think she’s extremely underrated. How did she come to your attention?

The character of Suzy is in some ways responsible for letting Harry in. She’s a completely pure character who won’t allow herself to be tainted by rumors or stories about people. And Harry can exploit that about her, and she lets him stay too long. You would think that her coming up in the south would have taken that innocence from her, but it hasn’t, she still believe people are good until they prove otherwise. So I wanted her to have a gentleness and to be naïve in a good way. You want her to keep that innocence. And on the other hand, Hattie (Ethel Ayler) knew immediately he was trouble, because she had experience running with Harry. She’d found religion and was sincere in that new belief, but she had the experience and learned that Harry couldn’t be trusted. So Suzy was kind of responsible, but could also be this stand up person. She was protective of her sons. And she had a quiet flame that could make the men stop fighting. We were very lucky to have found Mary Alice.

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To Sleep With Anger, Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films

It’s interesting that when Babe Bro is being corrupted by Harry, the first thing that really shows he’s being influenced is the way he starts mistreating his wife. Why did you choose to show misogyny as the first thing to emerge as Harry’s “taking his soul.”

When the film started, even before Harry arrives, he and his wife have sort of lost their compass in their marriage. They had started to value materialistic things. But deep down, he and his wife really like each other and complement each other. But when Harry arrives, he takes advantage of their troubles, and encourages him to look around. Talking about how if you drive around you always need a spare tire, in reference to finding another woman. I knew a lot of guys who grew up believing stuff like that. I got the worst information about how to treat women from older boys. But even as a young man I had problems with that because I saw the brutality of it. But to be a man in Harry’s eyes was to treat women beneath him. And Big Bro hadn’t gotten to that point, because he had a stronger foundation. The scene of the fight, when they accidentally cut Mary Alice, that was inspired by a neighbor I had growing up, who used to beat up his wife, but when the police came she would send them away. But one day, he went too far and cut her and she bled to death. And he kept insisting that it wasn’t his fault, it was an accident. But we all knew. I’ll always remember that, how cruel he was.

When you think back at how you made the film, there’s a little boy that’s Gideon and Suzy’s grandson and Babe Bro’s son who’s always observing the action. Was the film told from his perspective?

That was certainly the case with Killer Sheep, the kids are growing up and acting out what they saw their parents doing. But with this one, I don’t think so. Although, I never thought of it that way, and now I have to consider that question.

Have you thought about how the indie world changed and how the movie might have done if it could have been distributed by one of the smaller distributors or online?

It’s hard to say. I would say, we needed a distributor that better understood the film and how it had to be handled, that would have made a big difference. There are things which could have made a big difference which simply weren’t done. Now, when a distributor picks up a small film, they put time and money behind it because they want to make their money back too. But on the other hand, films are made much faster and there are a lot more coming out to compete with. And I still want to see movies in theaters.

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To Sleep With Anger, Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films

After this film you started to do more documentaries and telling more fact based stories. What moved you in that direction?

When I went to school, I wanted to be a still photographer, but couldn’t afford the equipment. So I got this old 35MM camera and really wanted to a photojournalist. And I went out into the community I lived in to take pictures, and the first thing I stumbled upon was this woman who overdose in the doorway. So I started taking photographs and the police didn’t bother me about doing that at all. And then this young lady came over to me and asked why I was taking pictures? And I said “for fun,” and she said “that’s a tragedy.” And after that I put the camera down. Because one of the things a camera can do is create a distance between you and the subject. But I always wanted to be a documentarian and went back to that after I made some features. They’re worth doing because they can reveal more about reality than a narrative film can.

 

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