Lives That Matter: Talking to Charles Burnett About To Sleep with Anger

TO SLEEP WITH ANGER-Charles Burnett

To Sleep with Anger (1990) begins innocuously, as a portrait of a Black American family with Southern roots that has been transplanted for some time to Los Angeles. Older bearlike patriarch Gideon (played by Paul Butler) pines for the affections of his spouse, the midwife Suzie (Mary Alice), who disputes with him over how he treats their adult sons. Junior (Carl Lumbly), who has long been seen as the correct, hard-working one, is resentful of the softer treatment he sees as having been given to Babe Brother (Richard Brooks), who himself burns as he and his wife get called irresponsible parents by older folks. The family members’ attentions turn from each other to outwards, though, with the arrival of an old friend from back home named Harry (Danny Glover). This laughing, raucous salesman type of a man shows up unannounced one day at Gideon and Suzie’s doorstep with the news that he’s passing through on his way to San Francisco, and they happily invite him in to stay a while.

They come to learn the error of their ways over the course of director Charles Burnett’s third feature, whose new digital restoration today begins a weeklong theatrical run at the Film Society of Lincoln Center with Burnett in person. While Harry himself behaves politely (per an old female acquaintance, as “the colored gentleman”), there’s something quietly menacing about him as he stirs up bad feelings in others. Soon Gideon is sick and bedridden, an old suitor is calling after Suzie, and the brothers’ mutual disdain intensifies until they literally come at each other’s throats. Amidst fearful whispers of what kind of supernatural force he might be, Harry comes to seem, most of all, like a figure who’s arrived to test his hosts’ strength. Will the family endure in spite of him? Can he help, in some way, to unite it?

As is the case in many of Burnett’s films, an incident gives occasion to observe a community, one built up onscreen seemingly from equal parts memory, fabulation, and firsthand observation. The Mississippi-born Burnett has spent most of his life in Los Angeles, and the people that he shows in this film are themselves almost all migrants to the West. They make references to life “back home” while indulging in many of its traditions, such as going to church, playing blues music, and loquaciously telling tales on topics that run the gamut from holy to sinful. The people’s trials and tribulations are shown with gentleness, good humor, and sympathy.

Burnett’s works most frequently focus on people who have come together in efforts to form self-contained societies amidst pressures from the outside world. The men and women, adults and children alike are all handed responsibilities to bear in keeping their self-made world afloat. The director is known best for 1978’s Killer of Sheep (on DVD along with several other Burnett works thanks to the great distributor Milestone Films), a black-and-white study of a working-class black family’s daily life in Watts that was made around the same time as a number of other remarkable Los Angeles-shot independent features by black independent peer filmmakers of Burnett’s such as Larry Clark, Haile Gerima, and Billy Woodberry. He has made a number of remarkable films since his debut feature, albeit in sporadic and little-noted fashion. For instance, some of his greatest works—such as the Antebellum South-set slavery tale Nightjohn (1996) and the directly autobiographical exploration of Delta Blues called The Blues: Warming By the Devil’s Fire (2003)—have been made for American television, with Burnett using the medium to relate intimate, ensemble-based stories about how much people can learn in life simply by listening and being open to one another.

To Sleep with Anger, despite strong reviews, was poorly distributed upon its initial release, with runs in fewer than twenty theaters in the United States. The new restoration gives occasion to bring attention both to a neglected film and to its director. In addition to presenting three screenings of this film, Burnett will appear at Lincoln Center for a September 10th screening of his film The Glass Shield (1994), in which an LAPD station’s first black deputy (played by Michael Boatman) faces pressure to aid his colleagues in a dubious arrest and conviction. The deputy’s quest to understand what the right course of action is—and to find the strength within himself to follow it—is eventually joined by fellow Department outcasts. Both The Glass Shield and To Sleep with Anger show people having their moral groundings challenged, and ultimately standing their ground with others people’s help.   

Brooklyn Magazine: How did you come to tell stories?

Charles Burnett: I could draw and paint very well in elementary school. I think that I should have stayed with it. My first time I remember wanting to tell a story was about my junior high school. I was walking home one day and could see the top of the building’s chimney, which was so big that you could see it from miles away. I remember thinking, “Yes, that school is the cause of destroying young children.”

I remember sitting in a class one day when the teacher began predicting what was going to become of the students. He walked down the aisle between the desks, giving a prediction for each kid. He looked down at me and said, “You’re not going to be anything,” which stuck with me for years. When I got to high school, it was the same kind of treatment—no nurturing at all. I remember thinking, “I’m going to expose the treatment that students get,” and made that a promise to myself.

I had majored in Electronics in high school but wanted to take photography. I wanted to be a photojournalist and tell stories that way, so I got myself a 35mm stills camera and went out and started shooting my community. The first thing that I shot was a young lady that had overdosed. She was lying in the doorway of her apartment. I just went right up to where she was lying and started taking pictures without asking anyone. The police just stood around and said nothing to me. A younger lady who had cerebral palsy and who was related to the dead woman approached me. She quietly asked me why I was taking pictures. I didn’t have an answer ready, so I said something really stupid: “For fun.” She looked at me and said, “You take pictures of dead people just for fun?” And the way that she said it just hit me with how insensitive I’d been. I put my stills camera down after that and never picked it up again to take pictures of tragedies.

I used to go to the movies a lot between school and my part-time job, and eventually I got really interested in becoming a cinematographer. I was at Los Angeles Community College majoring in Electronics and switched to Creative Writing. I took classes with a wonderful teacher named Isabel Ziegler, and from then on, I was into storytelling.

Eventually I transferred to UCLA’s film school. Even though I just wanted to be a cameraman at first, studying filmmaking at UCLA gave you the opportunity to try your hand in all aspects of filmmaking. You had to write and edit your own film and you also had the option of shooting it. The department lent you the equipment and said, “Go out and make a film and show us something that is original.” So you ended up doing everything—writing, shooting, directing—without any separation between categories. And I’ve continued making films since then.

TO SLEEP WITH ANGER-Charles Burnett

How did To Sleep with Anger come about?

It came about as an alternative, somewhat like a protest. I had started with the CPB [Corporate Public Broadcasting] on another project, which was based on a true incident from my community about a young girl who was killed. CPB was to develop it, but started wanting to make changes that distorted the facts of the tragedy. So I said to myself, “Why don’t I do something that’s completely imaginative that has nothing to do with reality at all?” That way, if they wanted to mess around, it wouldn’t be such a problem.

I started thinking about a story that had to do with folklore, black themes, and a simple situation involving a family. I grew up in a community with a lot of people from the South. My family and I had moved from Vicksburg, Mississippi to Los Angeles when I was just a couple of years old. Everyone in my community in South Central was from the South—Texas, Mississippi, Arkansas, you name it. No one that we knew had been born in LA at that time. Folkways were very much a part of our environment. There was a lot of storytelling. (It was said that “everyone from Mississippi is either a storyteller or a liar.”) As the years went by, though, I noticed that that sort of culture—oral, folk-based, and deeply rooted in belief systems—was disappearing. So in this film, I wanted to do something about the experiences that I had had growing up in my community.

I started writing this story about a typical working-class family in South Central, with typical conflicts. Everything became exaggerated, though, when this strange person showed up at the door from out of the past—the older members of the family knew him. With his arrival, the family started to disrupt. He was based on a Georgian folkloric character called Harry Man, whose story traditionally involves a Faustian kind of situation in which a evil demon or strange character bargains for your soul, and in the end, you have to redeem yourself by tricking him into returning it to you.

TO SLEEP WITH ANGER-Charles Burnett

Is Harry the Devil?

No, Harry is what you choose to believe he is. In the film, you don’t actually see him do anything. He shows up, and things happen—it’s all circumstantial. He isn’t properly a villain, but more of a catalyst, or a necessary evil, if anything. Traditionally, like in a lot of trickster stories, Harry Man can be many things. Sometimes he can be a Devil, or a good sorcerer, or sometimes a comic character. He could be something that brings people together. It’s sort of ambiguous what such a figure can represent. The choice is yours.

Certain people, through no fault of their own, just have bad luck following them. Harry could be that way. There are several sides to him. He says at one point in the film, “Sometimes good comes from the wrong reason.” He’s fully aware of his role in the family’s situation, with the power both to tear them apart and to bring them together and help resolve the members’ conflicts with each other. There’s a moment in the film when Suzie tells Harry that he has to leave, and you can see that she really doesn’t want to do it, that she has empathy for him, but that at the same time it’s a necessity. There’s another moment when Harry questions the sincerity of some people that have been working to feed the poor. It makes them feel good at first, but he makes them aware that they are not fully committed: Are they really solving the problem? He has this useful power to put things to people bluntly and to help them see themselves, or what they really don’t want to see.

So I wanted the film’s viewers to feel ambivalent about Harry, and to make up their minds about him based on their own experiences.

How did your life experiences further inform your vision of this story?

My religious upbringing is certainly there. My grandmother was very religious, went to church all the time, and I had an uncle who was a Southern Baptist preacher who just died recently. He had his own church in Mississippi. My brother and I had to get saved before we turned twelve, because when you hit twelve you become responsible for your sins. If you died before twelve, then you automatically when to Heaven, but after that, if you weren’t saved, then you rotted in Hell. To be saved, I had to go to my uncle’s church in Mississippi and pray for our souls all day for a week.

Church came first when I was young. We had to go to church on Sundays before we could go to the movies. My grandmother didn’t like the blues played in the house or for my brother and I to listen to it, but my mother did. I played the trumpet when I was about ten—one of the first pieces that I learned how to play was “The St. Louis Blues.” There’s a kid that plays the trumpet in To Sleep with Anger. Like the boy in the film (who is actually my oldest son), I drove my neighbors crazy with the noise that I made on my trumpet.

So there was some religious conflict in my family sometimes, but I was always taught not to judge people or to speak evil about a person. People are never the same from one moment to the next and reasons change, including time. Only God can judge, if you believe in a God.

When I was growing up, people did have judgments and suspicions about people, thinking that they were evil and out to do you harm. It’s true that there are people who are pure evil and totally psychopathic without empathy. But although some of the kids I grew up with appeared to be rowdy, and showed no hope of ever being normal, if you knew them, you knew that they were responding to certain things—trying to assert their manhood, or else just caught up in circumstances. Deep down, you knew that they were just acting out.

TO SLEEP WITH ANGER-Charles Burnett

Certain family dynamics occur throughout your films, including To Sleep with Anger: Brothers at odds, prodigal sons, parents torn between their children, marriages with stress on them. What appeals to you about producing and reproducing these configurations?

I think that in life they happen more frequently than not. The family is where you learn everything and early on experience the first and the most conflicts. I saw them in my family.

I’ve always thought that it’s important to have a good environment when you’re young. The community becomes a large part of the family in this way. Killer of Sheep is about that, you know? Learning from your neighbors and from the people around you. The games that you play with other kids might be violent, but they can also teach you how to survive and relate to others. It’s a violent socialization that ironically helps you to become adjusted.

There are a lot of things that look innocent, but that could easily have another side to them. Marriages are difficult. You hope to find the ideal situation, but a lot of people I know have serious problems. At one point they were happily married, and then at another point, sometime later, you wonder how it all went wrong. So I like to think that things are not what they seem, and that they don’t just end happily; you make adjustments. Life is a bit more complicated, and it can go in many ways.

Where do you find moments of human sympathy in your films?

I found them in many films before mine—Satyajit Ray’s The World of Apu (1959), Ousmane Sembène’s Emitai (1971), Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951) and Mouchette (1966), Bellocchio’s Fists in the Pocket (1965). In a film like The Glass Shield, I find it in the situation. Michael Boatman’s character, J.J., discovers the irony inherent in his contradictions. He wants to be a savior, a hero, and a decent person by being a cop, and he unwittingly sides with the wrong group. He ends up corrupting himself and allowing himself to be seduced by a corrupt system. His joining a conspiracy to convict an innocent person could easily happen to anyone. That’s the point of the story as well.

GLASS SHIELD, THE, Ice Cube, Michael Boatman, 1994

That’s one film, but you can see humanity throughout all the main themes in my films, I think. The family, and conflicts within the family. Having principles and living by them. Faults in judgment and how, in spite of your insight and experience, you still falter and things still happen to you. You look at people sometimes and discover that they’re still animals. And I like it in films when people realize that they’ve done something, and know that it’s wrong, and feel ashamed, and wish that they could correct it, but they can’t help themselves. The kinds of people who don’t care one bit about how their actions affect others don’t interest me. The ones suffering from guilt are the interesting ones.

The actors in To Sleep with Anger are wonderful. They, like the actors throughout your films, expertly convey moments of conflicted thoughts. How do you work with your performers to help them do this?

I think that it helps to have good and generous actors. I was very lucky in that regard. To Sleep with Anger marked my first time working with professional actors, and they were all very generously trying to get the best out of me and out of the script. You always have certain ideas about the characters, and then in your talks with the actors, you discover how much more they can add. The best part about working with actors is creating a viable world with them, one based both on logic and on emotions.

I can’t make a film that has surface meanings only. There has to be something more, something that you can draw out with the actors that’s unique about human beings. The depiction of thinking is certainly involved in this. I think it’s based on how you look at actors and expect them to respond to dialogue. In life, if someone says something to you, you don’t just respond automatically. You think about it. You get affected in some way. And then you have to make a decision in response: Are you going to tell the truth? Are you going to lie? Are you going to color things in a certain way? If there’s a moral implication in play, then I think that it’s better for the actor to think about what’s being said rather than just responding quickly. Part of the drama comes out in casual dialogue sometimes. That makes the situation more interesting, and gives it depth.

TO SLEEP WITH ANGER-Charles Burnett

Your films focus on, and ultimately affirm, the strength of Black American communities. Do you believe that it’s particularly important for people to see your stories about Black American life now, at a moment of notable police brutality and racism in the United States?

The thing about is that it’s not just this moment. It seems like it’s an ongoing thing. My concern is: Is it going to continue? This has always been a part of the black experience in this country, and particularly in communities like South Central and all the others in the US that have ghetto situations and a militarized police force. There has always been violence at the hands of police. The Rodney King stuff and what’s been happening with the Black Lives Matter movement have been part of the black community ever since I can remember. It’s tragic, but it’s nothing new.

I do think that it’s been revealed a certain way now, though. It seems like with the advent of video, people have become more aware of the fact of this stuff. It helps that there are more black filmmakers who have the ability and the means to bring these issues up more often than before. There was a black eighty-year-old lady the other day whose home was broken into by police that were chasing her son. She was standing by the door without knowing what was going on, and the police sprayed her in the face with mace and she fell down. It was awful. There was no feeling or anything.

I don’t know whether the situation with the economy in this country is going to make things worse. A lot of homeless people currently out of jobs are people of color. There’s no respect or any sort of feeling that these people are human beings. I’m mixing a number of subjects right now, but all of these things are problematic, and you wonder how they’re going to get cleared up.

I think it’s important that we keep the news on the front page that people are human and deserve our respect. They’re our brothers and sisters. A lot of the homeless have had professions, for example. I talked to them when I was making a documentary about the homeless called The Final Insult (1997) and found that some of them are former lawyers and accountants. Think about that, that’s the irony of ironies: An accountant who’s become so unable to manage his money that he’s fallen into this kind of situation. I think that what seeing people like that does is to say that if it could happen to them, then it could happen to anybody if you’re not careful.

I want audiences to empathize with the people in my films, to understand who they are, and to see them as human beings. That was the agenda for a lot of the black independent filmmakers that I grew up with: To shed light on who people are. To tell our stories, so that you could get a better understanding of who we are. Not just what Hollywood has produced, which dehumanizes people of color.

Your most recent authorial work was the short film Quiet as Kept (2007), about a Southern family’s efforts to adjust after being uprooted by Hurricane Katrina. Do you believe that you will make another film?

In some form or another, yes. I think that that’s always a concern for independent filmmakers like myself that don’t make films that often. You’re always concerned, but you also always have something that you’re trying to get going. I have several scripts for which I’m trying to get financing to make into a short film or a feature. I’m definitely going to buy a camera soon and go back to using some of my friends and neighbors if I can’t do anything else.

Charles Burnett

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