To Sleep with Anger (1990)
To Sleep with Anger (1990)
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter discusses one of Burnett’s major achievements and the first of his films to be made under relatively normal Hollywood production circumstances. To Sleep with Anger tells the story of generational and class conflict within a black family in Los Angeles. Retired worker Gabriel and his wife, Susie, are visited by Harry, an old friend from the south, who becomes a houseguest. Soon after Harry’s arrival, strange things begin to happen. Gabriel falls ill, and his youngest son falls under Harry’s bad influence.
BURNETT’S FIRST TWO FEATURE FILMS were concerned with economic, social, and cultural threats to the survival of black families in Watts. To Sleep with Anger, his impressive third feature and the first he made under relatively normal Hollywood production conditions, changes the pattern slightly. The location, unspecified in the film, has moved to the fringes of the Sugar Hill area of Los Angeles, north of Adams Boulevard between Western and Crenshaw. Named after a wealthy part of New York’s Harlem, Sugar Hill in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s was home to the most prosperous blacks in the city, many of them celebrities of sports and entertainment (residents included Joe Louis, Lena Horne, Louise Beavers, Hattie McDaniel, Pearl Bailey, and Ray Charles). Once populated by whites, it was known for its fine architecture, a good deal of which was demolished when the Santa Monica freeway was constructed, bisecting the neighborhood. The threatened family in To Sleep with Anger lives in a two-story Craftsman bungalow outside the borders of the original neighborhood. They seem reasonably secure, although, like the family in Killer of Sheep, they came to Los Angeles from the South and have a roof that needs repair. In this case, their survival as a unit has less to do with economic than with cultural, spiritual, and generational forces. More than Burnett’s previous films, this one is preoccupied with southern black religious traditions and folkways that once held families and communities together but are beginning to die off.
The title of the film is derived from Ephesians 4:26, which, in the King James Version of the Bible, reads: “Be ye angry, and sin not: let not the sun go down upon your anger.” Its plot concerns the extended family of the sixty-something Gideon, named for a mighty warrior of God in the Old Testament (Paul Butler), and his wife, Susie (Mary Alice). As a young man, (p.67) Gideon performed John Henry–like labor for the railroad, but at some point he found a job that enabled him to retire and live on a pension. The nature of the job is unclear; when I asked Charles Burnett about it, he said he that he imagined Gideon had found work with the Postal Service. Susie is a midwife who teaches natural childbirth. In cultural terms, the two are typical products of the post–World War II, southern black diaspora: they have southern accents and “country” superstitions, they regularly attend church, they gather the family for Sunday dinner, and they raise chickens and do gardening in their backyard. In a scene that was cut from the film for reasons of length, a policeman arrives at their door and informs them that a city ordinance forbids raising the chickens. Gideon angrily replies that he has always had chickens: “We grow most of our own food. The money I get from social security, my pension and my wife’s work keeps us living on the edge. What choice do people like us have?” The policeman says they should move “further out,” but doesn’t say where. When he leaves, Gideon fumes: “I’ll be damned if I get rid of my chickens. I ought to get some hogs and put them out there.”
Gideon and Susie’s two handsome sons live nearby. Junior, the elder (Carl Lumbly), resembles his father in his evident love for his wife and children and his pride in manual labor. Babe Brother, the younger (Richard Brooks), is a loan officer in a bank who is married to Linda, a real estate agent (Sheryl Lee Ralph), and has a very young son; a rebel against the southern black working class, Babe Brother is troubled by barely repressed sibling rivalry and anger over his father’s disapproval of him. This underlying tension is brought to the surface when Gideon’s old friend Harry (Danny Glover), en route from Detroit to Oakland, is welcomed into Gideon’s home and given a temporary place to stay. At first Harry behaves like a polite, old-country southerner, but he’s soon revealed to be a ne’er-do-well who may have magical powers. His name is a sly reference to the mythical “Harry Man” of southern black, Indian, and West African folklore: a trickster who can rob you of your soul if you don’t outwit him. Strange things begin to happen after Harry arrives. Gideon falls mysteriously ill, and Harry casts a kind of spell over Babe Brother, attempting to lure him away from home. But there’s something morally ambiguous or ironic about Harry, as there is in some versions of the trickster in folklore. Burnett has said that he viewed Harry as a “type of person who is seen as evil, but isn’t evil” (1996, 97). The film never attributes truly magical powers to him, and most of the trouble he causes has less to do with malevolence than with a dangerously wild, fun-loving rebelliousness. (p.68) His extended visit disturbs the family’s status quo and unleashes a hidden rage, yet it creates the possibility for reconciliation and healing.
To Sleep with Anger originated as a television project for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, an organization that proved almost as intractable and meddling as the big movie studios would have been. Burnett initially approached the CPB because he wanted to tell the story of a real-life character, a heroic young girl named Dimitria Wallace who was murdered by an LA gang because she was going to testify against them in court. The CPB provided money for the development of the script, but when the staff saw Burnett’s treatment, they suggested changes that ran counter to the truth of the story. Burnett offered to substitute the purely fictional To Sleep with Anger, but the CPB wanted to eliminate the folkloric elements, which the organization thought the general audience (i.e., whites) wouldn’t understand, and instead center the story entirely on the buppie couple of Babe Brother and his wife Linda. This was completely against the spirit of Burnett’s unusual screenplay. As he later explained, his purpose was “to establish some kind of continuity between the present and the past by using contemporary situations combined with this folklore character” (Kapsis 2011, 23). He was especially interested in a vanishing oral tradition seldom acknowledged in history books and was concerned to show the struggle within black families when the younger generation moves into the middle class. He therefore withdrew from the CPB plans. Fortunately, in 1989 he received the MacArthur “genius” award and a Rockefeller Foundation production grant. That same year, independent filmmaker Michael Tolkin recommended him to LA producer Caldecot Chubb (among Chubb’s later films is Kasi Lemmons’s Eve’s Bayou ), who had recently joined forces with Edward R. Pressman. (Pressman’s many credits include Badlands , Wall Street , and Bad Lieutenant .) Chubb called Burnett, asked to see the screenplay for To Sleep with Anger, and immediately set about raising money.
Chubb and Pressman were model producers and never interfered with Burnett’s work. Budgeted at $1,200,000, the film used a nonunion crew and was shot with a three-to-one ratio on location in only twenty-eight days. Burnett’s earliest script had centered on conflicts between Gideon and his wife, but in a desire to get a name actor he revised the story to emphasize the conflict between Gideon and his youngest son. Chiefly because of budget and running-time limitations, he ultimately cut some folkloric material, some minor characters who gave a sense of the community, and some evocative details about Harry’s past that made him a more complex, ambiguous character. (p.69) Parts of this material made it into a longer version of the film, which played at Sundance, but they were cut when the Goldwyn Company took over distribution. Otherwise, the finished product adheres to Burnett’s plans. (The full screenplay, containing many fine scenes that were altered or omitted, one of them a dream sequence, was published in Scenario 2, no. 1 [Spring 1996].) He had the benefit of a photographer he personally approved, Walt Lloyd, who was formerly director of photography for Soderbergh’s sex, lies, and videotape (1989). He also had a large and excellent cast of actors, all members of the Screen Actors Guild. Most important was Danny Glover, the costar of the Lethal Weapon franchise, who was at that time the most successful black actor in Hollywood.
When Burnett and his producers showed Glover the screenplay, they thought he might be interested in playing Babe Brother (it was rumored that he always picked young characters). In the role of Harry, Burnett was planning to cast Julius Harris, a large, imposing, but less well-known actor who had appeared in Super Fly (1972), Live and Let Die (1973), The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974), and numerous TV shows. But Glover asked if he could take on the role of the Harry Man. Burnett was understandably quick to approve the idea, and Julius Harris ended up being cast as Herman, an old and ailing member of Harry’s entourage. Glover not only brought to the film potential box-office appeal (and financial help as an executive producer) but also gave the most impressive performance of his career, subtly revealing the complex, contradictory aspects of Harry’s character: his charm, his guile, his creepiness, his manipulation and seductiveness, his delight in causing trouble, and occasionally his loneliness and vulnerability. In the film his deep, sandpapery voice is compelling, his face can look both kindly and menacing, and his movements are alternately graceful and bent with age.
To Sleep with Anger is a deceptively simple-looking film that takes on added meaning with repeated viewings and has an intriguing, unusually mixed tone. One could describe it as a black comedy (pun intended), especially in its closing scenes, when, as if by some magic concatenation of forces, Harry falls dead in the kitchen doorway and Gideon’s family is unable to get city officials to move the body. Burnett told me that where humor is concerned, he was chiefly interested in creating a feeling of the ironic, the absurd, and the contradictory: “Without trying to be funny,” he remarked, “humor comes naturally out of ironic situations and the absurd.” Not that he would have wanted to, but he could have called the picture The Trouble with Harry, a title Hitchcock used in 1955 for a gentle black comedy about a (p.70) troublesome corpse. (Burnett remembers seeing the Hitchcock picture with his mother and grandmother when he was a child.) Burnett’s film, however, is comic in a greater variety of ways. A sweetly amusing view of a community, its dialogue contains funny stories and satirical old sayings, and its ending has the pleasantly upbeat quality of what classical scholars term “New Comedy,” which usually has to do with social continuity and the initiation or restoration of marriage. But it isn’t a lighthearted movie. As Phillip Lamarr Cunningham has noted, it could also be described as an example of southern and African American gothic, much of which has to do with decaying families, conjuring, and the ghosts of slavery (2011; see also Goddu 1997). Nightmarish moods and family violence emerge during the film and need to be expunged or resolved before comic happiness can be achieved.
To Sleep with Anger was exceptionally well reviewed and won four Independent Spirit awards, a best screenplay award from the National Board of Review, and a Special Jury Prize at Sundance. But it was badly promoted and distributed by the Goldwyn Company and never got a chance to find an audience. A year after it was released, Burnett encountered people who asked him when it would appear. In one city in Texas, it played in a theater so remote that, according to Burnett, you had to make a U-turn on the expressway to get there. Goldwyn was so stingy about the number of prints it made that Burnett had trouble getting prints even for press screenings. There was no attempt to publicize the film in unconventional places, such as black schools and churches, where there was a potential audience. Burnett remembers being in Washington, D.C., when it was playing and not being able to find advertising. It wasn’t even listed on the theater marquee; moviegoers had to go inside and ask to find out that it was showing. Burnett recalls that “a friend of mine, Carol Blue, decided to prove … that if the film was advertised properly, you could get a full house. So in San Diego, after the film had already come and gone, she organized a series of screenings and packed the house. … She just generated a lot of word of mouth, and the film did extremely well” (1996, 203). Recently, the Sony organization has generated a beautiful 35mm restoration, and we can hope it will one day be available on Blu-ray.
Like My Brother’s Wedding, To Sleep with Anger opens with a somewhat enigmatic sequence involving an old black spiritual song, although in this case the enigma is partly explained when we discover that what we’re watching is a dream. An overweight man (we soon learn he’s Gideon), dressed in a (p.71) fancy white fedora, a white suit, and white shoes, sits upright and expressionless in a straight-backed chair. On the wall behind him is a large photographic portrait of an elegantly dressed woman from another era (we later see this picture in Gideon’s house, but the woman is never identified), and next to him is a table holding a bowl of fruit and a slightly browning half of an apple. As the man twiddles his thumbs, the fruit on the table, the legs of the table, and his white shoes burst into flame. Over this we hear a legendary recording of Thomas A. Dorsey’s “Precious Memories” by singer/guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Burnett conceived the sequence with that recording in mind, in part because his grandmother loved it. Dorsey was a pioneer writer of music for black churches and is often described as “the father of American gospel.” Tharpe, a crossover recording success of the 1930s and 1940s, has been described as the “the godmother of rock and roll.” The recording’s beautiful fusion of gospel and blues—if you like, of sacred and profane—is perfectly appropriate for a film in which tradition and modernity, religion and conjuring, familial love and devilish impulses are intertwined.
At the end of the dream sequence, Gideon’s burning shoes dissolve to his bare feet and the camera pulls back to reveal that he’s wearing jeans and sitting in a chair near his backyard chicken coop with a Bible in his lap. The film never tries to interpret his dream fully. Was the picture on the wall a relative, perhaps Gideon’s mother or grandmother? What’s the meaning of the uneaten apple? Why the flames? A possible determinant of the dream is provided when Susie, who has been teaching a crowded Lamaze childbirth class in the living room, meets Gideon in the bedroom. He’s anxiously looking through drawers and cupboards and tells her that he’s lost his “Toby,” a charm his great-grandfather gave him.
The Toby, a homemade, sometimes entirely improvised object with a shape that can resemble a crucifix, has totemic significance in southern black folklore, acting as a shield against the devil or, more rarely, as an instrument of evil magic. As Cunningham explains, the Toby serves to link conjure with Christianity: “Often, conjure is presented as incongruous to traditional religion; however, for many Southern blacks, black magic and Christianity went hand-in-hand” (2011, 127). Hence Gideon’s loss of the Toby prefigures the arrival of Harry, who, we subsequently learn, has long ago misplaced his own Toby. The loss of the protective charm also helps partly explain Gideon’s dream, in which he’s dressed like a dapper gangster or a potentially sinful character about to be engulfed by flames. In an interview, Burnett has suggested just such an interpretation: “Gideon has a dream, a nightmare, born (p.72) out of anger and frustration. He’s lost his Toby. He sees himself burning in Hell for the first time, and then Harry shows up” (Kapsis 2011, 55).
The anger and frustration to which Burnett alludes are also caused by Gideon’s unhappy relationship with his younger son, a relationship that immediately becomes a topic of the dialogue. Gideon and Susie, with the assistance of Junior’s teenage daughter Ronda (Reina King), are babysitting Babe Brother’s five- or six-year-old child Sunny (DeVaughn Nixon), whom we glimpse sleeping in one of their bedrooms. (On the wall behind him is the old portrait we saw in Gideon’s dream, and in his hand is a half-eaten apple; he’s a silent observer of much of the action and an unwitting agent of the film’s denouement.) Gideon complains that Babe Brother is spoiled, utterly different from the responsible Junior; he leaves his child for long periods of time and has forgotten Susie’s recent birthday. Mary Alice, who has one of the sweetest faces in the history of movies, does an excellent job of conveying Susie’s quiet strength and wisdom while at the same time avoiding the trap of making her look saintly; she defends Babe Brother (“It just takes some people longer to figure out who they are”) and calms Gideon in almost the same voice she uses with expectant mothers and fathers in the Lamaze class. Paul Butler is equally excellent at registering Gideon’s emotional shift from righteousness to deference. He lies back on the bed and suggests that he and Susie might have time for a bit of sex before Sunny awakes. Susie picks up his house slippers, puts them down on his big belly, and exits, giving him a subtle wink.
One of Burnett’s virtues is his habit of departing from the plot to observe details of everyday life in the surrounding world, a habit he’s been forced to restrain in his less independent films and to some extent in To Sleep with Anger, especially after the Goldwyn Company took over distribution. For example, an early version of the film involved a character named “Old John,” who rolls a cart up the alleyway behind Gideon and Susie’s house and gives them rabbit manure for their garden. “I was raised a mule and now I’m a rolling stone,” Old John says to Gideon. Susie gives him some fresh tomatoes and tells him she’s planted a row of vegetables just for him. “I didn’t mean for you to pay me,” he says. “I know,” Susie says, “but you have been so thoughtful.” The scene says a good deal about the life of the poor in the neighborhood and about the vestiges of the barter economy that Gideon and Susie brought with them from the South. Along with several other brief and more or less autonomous scenes that gave a sense of the community, it was cut.
A couple of minor digressions survive, however, and appear early in the film when Burnett cuts away from Gideon’s house to show kids in the neighborhood. (p.73) A boy who is raising pigeons releases the birds and throws rocks to keep them in flight; they make graceful swoops and swirls in the blue sky, and the rocks fall on Gideon’s roof. Next door, another boy practices the trumpet; when he attempts to hit a high note, he produces an awful screech that annoys everybody in hearing distance. Gideon complains about the noise, and kids out on the sidewalk yell, “Shut up! Go help your mamma wash dishes!” (In the longer version of the film we discover that the early morning crowing of the rooster in Gideon’s backyard is equally annoying to the neighbors.) These scenes of children have an autobiographical source—when Burnett was a boy, he both raised pigeons and played the trumpet—but they also become important motifs. We occasionally return to the pigeons, which take on the quality of a magical sign. The boy with the trumpet keeps blowing, at one point causing a little girl on the sidewalk to cover her ears. Later, he intervenes in the plot when the noise of his horn saves a rooster in Gideon’s backyard from being murdered by Harry, and at the end of the film he performs a crucial function.
The latent tension in Gideon’s house is exacerbated when Babe Brother arrives at one A.M. to claim his son. He and Susie, dressed in her nightgown, have a tender embrace at the door, but Gideon rushes downstairs in a pair of minatory-looking red pajamas and berates Babe Brother for his lateness. Under strain because of the conflict between her husband and her son, Susie is able to partly defuse the situation by stepping between the two men, a position she takes at two other important points in the film. But on the next morning conflict spreads to Babe Brother’s home; he awakes to find Linda dressed in business clothes, on her way to work, and when he gives Sunny a sip of his coffee, she accuses him of spoiling the child, just as he was spoiled. He has heard this accusation before, and it touches a raw nerve. He angrily tells Linda that his father, who believed “calluses are the mark of a man,” made him do hard labor and go to church all day on Sundays. His family, he says, are “no different from farm animals.”
A few days later Babe Brother pays a brief, obligatory visit to the family’s Sunday dinner and is publicly called to account by his father and older brother. “When are you going to find time to help me fix the roof?” Junior asks him. Gideon scowls and reminds Babe Brother that he’s forgotten Susie’s birthday. “Boy, go tell your wife to come in,” Gideon orders. Babe Brother goes out to Linda, who is sitting in their car, and tries to coax her into the house. “I haven’t read this year’s almanac,” she says. “What would I talk about?” Inside the house, Junior tells his father, “You all should have been (p.74) hard on him like you were with me.” Susie, troubled, looks down at her plate and quietly replies, “Everybody got the same.”
Babe Brother is one of the most interesting characters in the film. He’s angry with his father, but hypocritically depends on his parents to help care for his child. He talks disparagingly about Gideon and Susie behind their backs, but in their presence makes lame excuses for neglecting them. He’s something of a child-man and becomes less sympathetic as the film goes on. But a grown man who is still being called “Babe Brother” or “Boy’ is made to feel like a child, and he may have good reason to nurture resentment. (“Junior,” a less condescending nickname, is appropriate for a chip off the old block.) Susie’s insistence that both brothers “got the same” carries weight. Babe Brother’s repressed fury at being treated as a spoiled momma’s boy is understandable. He has repudiated his working-class background, and his father and brother, who treat him with anger, seem partly motivated by a form of class resentment. They and his career-woman wife also implicitly criticize his manhood. All this explains the strange influence Harry will have over him. Babe Brother’s male ego has been wounded by his father, brother, and wife; he’s mesmerized by the idea of abandoning his middle-class world and becoming not a laborer but an old-time bad man who carries a knife, has lots of women, and lives on the road.
The film presages Harry’s arrival with a series of domestic events that have a slightly uncanny or magical quality. The first involves oral storytelling, which has the power to stimulate imagination and create legends. “When I grew up,” Burnett once told an interviewer, “everyone told jokes and stories. It isn’t that way anymore. Having stories told when you’re a kid, organizing perception in symbolic ways, is so important” (Kapsis 2011, 40). The practice is dramatized when Gideon, while working on a household chore, tells Babe Brother’s child an elaborate joke. The boy sits on the floor in rapt attention as his grandfather describes a bunch of preachers in a church basement holding a confessional competition to decide which of them has the most sinful habits. Gideon imitates each of their prissy voices as they make their naughty revelations, building up to the last preacher, who is quite sure that he’s the worst sinner of all: “My sin is gossip,” the preacher confesses, “and I’m going to tell everything I’ve heard!” Too young to comprehend the joke, Sunny doesn’t laugh, but he’s captivated by the story and tries to tell one of his own, beginning, “Once upon a time.” Just then a wind or some invisible force knocks over a broom standing in a kitchen corner. As the broom falls, it dislodges one of Susie’s favorite teacups, which shatters on the floor.
(p.75) At that moment, Harry arrives. As Burnett had done in previous films, he introduces the character with a close-up of a pair of shoes, which in this case are large and well worn. Then we see Harry in a wide shot, viewed from behind, standing at Gideon and Susie’s door and carrying his belongings in large paper boxes bound with string. Gaye Shannon Burnett was costume designer for the film, and her unobtrusive work enhances this and other characterizations: Harry wears a brown, ill-fitting suit and a grey hat with an upturned brim that sits squarely atop his head. From behind, he looks like a weary traveler from the country who is trying to maintain humble dignity. But there’s also a touch of the door-to-door salesman in the way he prepares to ring the bell. As the film proceeds, we discover that he has a flashier wardrobe in those paper boxes: loud ties, suspenders, and suits, all redolent of earlier times and rowdy places.
“Harry! I can’t believe it’s you!” Susie cries as Harry wipes his shoes on the doormat and enters the house. “Good God Almighty, man!” Gideon shouts. “Susie, we haven’t seen Harry since we left home!” But after a round of joyful hugs and reminiscences, the mood briefly changes. Sunny, who has been sweeping shards of teacup from the kitchen floor, shyly approaches and accidentally touches Harry’s shoe with the broom. Harry’s ingratiating smile vanishes and an expression of mingled anger and fear passes over his face. He seizes the broom and spits on the brush end. “Boy,” he says quietly, with a forbidding look, “that is bad luck to touch a fellow with a broom.” Susie tells Sunny to apologize and brings salt for Harry to throw over his shoulder. (p.76) (This is another scene that has autobiographical resonance; as a boy, Burnett was reprimanded for touching an old man with a broom and for years afterward was cautious when he swept the floor.) From virtually the moment Harry enters the house, southern black superstition comes to the fore; domestic objects become charms, things to conjure with, capable of creating or warding off evil. Harry explains that he’s just stopping over until his next bus connection late in the evening, but Gideon and Susie urge him to stay. “Well, I don’t want to put you out,” he says (the words of somebody who, once inside, becomes a semipermanent guest). Susie points out that because their sons are grown the house has empty bedrooms. Harry smiles and says he doesn’t need a mattress: “Always make me a pallet on the floor.”
The next morning, a Sunday, Harry rises from his pallet, dresses, and goes deferentially to the kitchen, where most of the important family scenes of this film are set. Gideon, in his underwear, is ironing his pants for church. Susie, working on the after-church meal, turns and smiles with delight at Harry’s politeness: “One can sure tell you’re from back home!” Harry strikes an aw-shucks attitude but has a devilish glint in his eye. Back home, he says, “you have to know how to act right, have to say yes sir, no sir—have to know your place” (a hint of why Harry has become the sort of character he is). Just then Junior arrives with his daughter Ronny and his wife Pat (Vonetta McGee), who is in a late stage of pregnancy. Gideon introduces them to Harry, and when Harry shakes Pat’s hand her baby gives her a mighty kick: “Oh! Must be turning over,” she says.
When the family goes off to church, Harry stays behind, claiming fatigue but using the opportunity to explore the house. The sequence is backed nondiegetically by Rosetta Tharpe’s cover of “Precious Memories,” which we heard during the dream at the beginning of the film. Valerie Smith has observed that the first occurrence of the song “suggests something of Gideon’s southern past in his northern life,” but the second provides ironic background for Harry’s search through that same past (2003, 875). His silent actions range from apparently simple curiosity to sinister intrusiveness. First, he studies a large group of family snapshots inserted in the frame of a dressing-table mirror. Pausing at the photo of a child, he holds a hand over it in a weird gesture, temporarily blocking it from view. (Later we get a possible explanation for this gesture.) Next, he inspects a handsome old clock on a mantel. Smiling to himself, he puts a finger on the minute hand, gives it a revolution, then slowly moves it back to where it was. (This slightly chilling bit of business was improvised by Glover as the scene was shot; no Method (p.77) actor, he approached the role by thinking a good deal about how Harry should look, sound, and behave.) Upstairs, in Gideon and Susie’s bedroom, he looks through drawers, finding a gold pocket watch and a group of letters, one of which he reads.
At church, Gideon, Susie, and Junior’s family listen to the preacher read a speech by Christ to his disciples from Matthew 10:34–35: “Think not that I am come to make peace on earth. I come not to bring peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father. … And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.” Commentators on this passage usually explain that Christ’s mission is in fact peace, but by believing in him his disciples will create violent discord between members of their families. Where To Sleep with Anger is concerned, the Bible verse serves to foreshadow the violence that will result from Harry’s manipulation of the already tense relationship between Babe Brother and his family—a “variance” of son against father and brother, which will involve a knife rather than a sword.
A knife figures prominently in the next sequence, in which Danny Glover gives a virtuoso performance. While Gideon, Susie, and Junior’s family are still at church, Babe Brother and his family have arrived at Gideon’s house, presumably for Sunday dinner. Harry is with them in the kitchen, playing cards with Babe Brother while Linda and Sunny look on. (Their conversation is intercut with two brief scenes of young people being baptized at the church, creating a montage of conflicts between the Holy and the devilish.) Linda remarks that Harry seems different from Gideon’s other friends: “They think if you’re not hard at work you’re hard at sin.” Harry takes out a big crab-apple switchblade with a rabbit’s foot dangling from the hilt and begins cleaning his fingernails. “I’m more modern,” he tells her in a whispery, gravelly voice. “I don’t believe in sin. I believe in good and evil, and evil is something you have to work at.” Fascinated, Sunny moves around his mother’s shoulder and tries to touch the knife. Harry shoos him away. The rabbit’s foot, he says, takes the place of the Toby his grandmother gave him, which he lost some years ago. Babe Brother reacts with troubled interest, but Linda, amused by Harry’s quaint habits, arches a brow, smiles, and asks, “What’s a Toby?” Harry explains the nature of the charm and warns that “you don’t want to be at a crossroads without one.” His remark is rich with implication: it links up the cross-shaped Toby with the troubled, metaphoric crossroad at which Gideon’s family has arrived, but more specifically, it alludes to the founding legend of blues music, in which Robert Johnson and Tommy Johnson supposedly met the devil at a crossroad and sold their souls to become masters of
Harry laughs, shows his winning cards to Babe Brother, and gives him a friendly slap on the shoulder. Then he turns to Linda and asks if Sunny was born at home, like the rest of Susie’s family. “No, indeed,” she says, looking proudly at her son, “I had my baby at Cedars Sinai.” Babe Brother, increasingly interested in Harry’s knife, asks, “You ever use this thing?” Harry laughs and says the knife is for “bad monkeys.” He squeezes Babe Brother’s shoulder and smiles, relishing an opportunity for storytelling.
He begins ambiguously, unwilling to say whether the tale is real or imagined. “I seem to remember I had to use that crab apple on a boy from back home. I was coming down Beale Street. I heard this music coming from a booth. Sure enough, it was Henry. He and another boy had killed a boy named Hunter, and they balled the jack leaving town.” (Glover chuckles and makes quick little movements with his fists, as if sprinting.) “Henry had lost one eye and had a scar running down his face.” Like a magician, Harry traces a line with his finger down from his forehead to his jaw, transforming his half-closed eye into what looks like an empty socket and speaking in a husky, hypnotic voice. “They went up to this girl’s room and got to drinking that corn liquor.” Linda becomes uneasy, turning her head away and looking down. Harry continues: “The girl turned out the lights! Man!” Babe Brother, in a trance, clings to every word. Harry breaks the spell by grasping him by the shoulder and giving him advice: “A man that drinks keeps a knife open in his pocket.”
(p.79) After a beat of silence, Linda, feeling excluded, picks up one of the cards on the table, which is illustrated on the back with a painting of a nude woman being approached from behind by an eerie, skeletal figure. Babe Brother reacts angrily: “Don’t pick up the cards! You’re not in the game!” The three exchange glances, silently aware that Harry has acquired all the power at the table and that Linda will no longer have influence in any game involving her husband. Babe Brother, looking a bit guilty about his outburst, asks Harry, “So did you use the knife?” Harry quietly boasts, “I protected myself and I always will.” Leaning back, he puts an arm around Linda and rubs her shoulder. She looks a bit frightened, head down and arms crossed over her breasts. Harry keeps rubbing her shoulder and almost licks his lips. “I like the blues,” he says.
As the film proceeds, Harry grows increasingly disturbing. In Burnett’s original screenplay there were more sympathetic aspects of the character, including the fact that he had two sons who died. “I made Harry more real,” Burnett told an interviewer in Scenario, “more a person you could identify with. You could understand his tragedy, and I think, toward the end, in his conversation with Susie, that becomes important” (1996, 99). The only evidence of this tragedy in the final version of the film is a child’s photo Harry keeps in his wallet. In one scene, he briefly places it among the family pictures on Susie’s bedroom mirror. (A younger version of this child might already be on the mirror and might be the photo Harry covers with his hand in an earlier scene.) Soon after this, however, he attempts to sow discord between Pat and Junior. First he approaches Pat, praising her for the volunteer work she does feeding the poor but giving her advice: “You can’t feed everybody. You have to take one in and fatten him up. If you save one, life goes on.” Then he approaches Junior and alludes to Pat when he remarks: “Some people are attracted to pain and suffering. They like to be near the dying. But you never can tell what’s in your heart.”
The longer Harry stays with Gideon and Susie, the more openly sexual and party-loving he becomes and the more we can appreciate Burnett’s mastery of a pungent, homely, suggestive dialogue that never resorts to the four-letter words that are commonplace in today’s cinema. This is especially true when one day Susie calls for Harry to come down to the kitchen. He arrives wearing a somewhat flashy suit. The camera takes his point of view as Susie smiles, announces “Sur-pri-ize,” and steps aside, creating an almost eerie reveal and an impressive entrance for the figure behind her: Harry’s old friend Hattie, an attractive older woman with a nimbus of white hair, a naturally provocative (p.80) smile, and a shyly bowed head (Ethel Ayler, who began her career as a stage understudy for Lena Horne). Harry gazes at Hattie with admiration and crosses the room, pulling out a chair for her at the kitchen table. He touches her shoulders, leans down, and softly asks, “Girl, you still sing and dance?” Uncomfortable, she tells him she’s “a different person now.” Standing in the background, Gideon observes that the years have been good to Hattie. “Hasn’t been the years,” Harry says. “Been the men in her life.” This makes Hattie even more uncomfortable: “That’s not nice. I’m in church now.” Harry circles her, looking her in the eye: “Why close the barn door when the horse is gone? I remember you when you weren’t saved … way back when the Natchez Trace was just a dirt road. … I know your mother ain’t still operating that house of hers.” Very quietly, almost to herself, Hattie says, “My mother passed on.”
Harry turns to Susie and slyly tells her, “By the way, I came across Okra, your old childhood sweetheart.” Susie looks puzzled: “Okra? Shoot!” Then Harry turns to Hattie and flirtatiously quotes poetry: “‘Out of weariness, I spoke to my own heart.’” Hattie looks at him with skeptical amusement: “Harry, you know you remind me of so much that went wrong in my life.” He keeps circling her, invading her space. “That’s Pushkin,” he tells her. “You don’t know him.” She counters with a couple of folk sayings. “‘An empty wagon makes a lot of noise,’” she observes. Then she laughs: “‘You tappy head, you ain’t worth the salt they put on greens!’”
The laughter she generates inspires Harry to suggest a fish fry, which leads to a party and one of the film’s high points. Burnett originally planned to show a good deal of dancing, but he dropped the idea because he had only one day to shoot the event. Despite time constraints, he vividly establishes a gallery of minor characters and creates the feeling of a festive, convivial, musical occasion that has pockets of conflict and a potential for violence. At the start of the evening Susie, with a new hairdo and a pretty necklace, puts snacks on the coffee table (cheese with toothpicks) as the doorbell rings and dressed-up guests begin arriving. Burnett positions the camera near the doorway, giving us a montage of character types as they enter and are greeted by Susie. Some are old friends, such as Hattie and her brother Marsh (Sy Richardson), who gives Harry a dirty glance. Others are relative strangers, such as a bald old man with a sexy, henna-haired young wife or girlfriend who causes Gideon and Susie to exchange looks with raised eyebrows. Still others are old pals of Harry, who hovers near the door, looking on with the amused air of a slightly devilish impresario. Among these is Okra (Davis Roberts), a name worthy of Faulkner or Elmore Leonard, who steps in wearing a plaid
(p.81) sport coat and a camera strung over his shoulder. A skinny old fellow with grey hair and a natty mustache, he kisses Susie’s hand and tells her, “I’m still in love, and not too old to get in a fight.” Harry looks on with amusement and gives him a salute.
Babe Brother and Linda arrive, followed by Junior and his family. Babe Brother immediately leaves Linda and goes to Harry, who is relaxing in a chair, ready for mischief. At Harry’s bidding, Okra brings something wrapped in a towel into the kitchen (as I’ve indicated, in this and other Burnett films, the kitchen is a place where significant events happen and hidden things show themselves). Harry removes the towel and reveals a large bottle. “This is the real South,” he declares. Various men gather around. “Is this the real corn liquor?” one asks. “It ain’t Geritol,” says another. Tea cups are handed out, and Harry eagerly pours drinks.
In the front room, the guests listen to the first of two songs that grace the evening: “See, See Rider,” featuring a cameo appearance by jazz and blues artist Jimmy Witherspoon, who plays a character named Percy. As always, Burnett’s musical choices are meaningful. “See, See Rider,” which was first recorded by Ma Rainey in 1924, is arguably the definitive blues song, and in this context might be described as Harry’s theme, telling a story of sex, jealousy, and violence. A montage accompanies the performance: Susie and (p.82) Gideon dance and Okra follows them around, taking pictures of Susie; Linda has no one for company; Harry puts his arm around Babe Brother, who drinks from a tea cup (“Buy me a pistol,” Witherspoon sings, “just as long as I am tall”); Linda, still alone, looks increasingly sad.
At the end of the song, Harry bursts into the living room, applauds gleefully, and says, “Let’s get Hattie to sing a song from the old days!” She gives him a disapproving look. “Harry always tries to be the Kingfish,” she announces. “I’ve told him I’m a different person now. I’m saved.” Harry returns to the kitchen and resumes drinking with Babe Brother, but Hattie’s brother Marsh interrupts, taking Babe Brother’s place at the table. Quietly but angrily, he suggests that Harry may have had something to do with the deaths down South of Marsh’s cousin Henry and his best friend (the same people Harry may have been talking about in the story he earlier told Babe Brother and Linda), whose murder by a gang of whites nearly caused a race riot. Harry shrugs, remarking that Marsh’s cousin “always had a big mouth,” and “sometimes the right action comes from the wrong reason.”
As tension rises in the kitchen, Burnett returns to the living room, where Hattie sings the second of the evening’s songs: “Stand by Me,” a popular R & B number by Ben E. King and legendary rock-and-roll writers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. First recorded by King and afterward covered by hundreds of artists, the song has distant roots in black spirituals and serves as a counterpoint to “See, See Ryder,” as if the carnal and spiritual elements that were blended in “Precious Memories” were now split apart. Hattie sings a prayer asking God to “stand by me” during “trials and tribulation,” and her song is intercut with two quarrels: the confrontation between Marsh and Harry and a scene in which Gideon goes out to the front yard and berates the departing Babe Brother and Linda for leaving their child with his grandparents and never going to church. As usual, Gideon compares Babe Brother unfavorably with Junior, and this sets Babe Brother aflame. Susie joins the group and tries to calm Gideon, warning that he might have a stroke. “I don’t care if I drop dead as long as he learns something,” he shouts. Babe Brother asks his mother, “Why is he always comparing me?” He turns to Gideon and shouts, “I’m getting tired of you always reminding me that Big Mamma was born in slavery! If you care about me just show me how to make money!” Gideon starts to leave in disgust, but Susie stops him. Standing between the two men, as she did earlier, she makes them shake hands and tries to prevent them from sleeping in anger.
On the next day trouble deepens, and Harry seems to be the cause, producing a series of uncanny events similar to the ones that accompanied his first (p.83) appearance. First, he and Gideon go for a walk along the LA rail tracks, reminiscing about their days as laborers. Gideon is exhausted, breathing heavily, struggling to keep pace. “We laid enough of them, didn’t we?” Harry asks, and as they gaze down the empty tracks a dream vision appears: a group of young black men with picks and sledgehammers, bathed in a hazy orange light, driving spikes into rails with rhythmic blows. “We’ll go a little further,” Harry says. “Walking will do you good.” But Gideon is obviously on the verge of collapse.
A direct cut takes us to the evening and to an ordinary but eerily portentous image: in close-up, a moth struggles inside the bowl of a ceiling lamp. Susie, in her nightgown, turns out the light. As she goes upstairs, a light from a passing car sweeps across the room, revealing Harry standing in the shadows. Red light from another car flashes past, giving his face a demonic aspect. Another direct cut takes us to the next morning and to a close-up of a whistling teapot. Gideon, in severe pain, tries to get out of bed and calls for Susie to come up from the kitchen. In close-up, viewed from behind, Harry sits quietly in the next bedroom; the camera rises over his head and looks down to reveal that he’s peeling an apple with his big knife.
Gideon feels an urgent need to feed the chickens, but Susie calms him while Harry stands behind her, licking apple juice off his blade. A moment later, he emerges from the backyard chicken coop with a struggling chicken in each hand. Susie calls out to him, asking if he can watch over Gideon while she attends to a woman who has just gone into labor. “You go on,” Harry chuckles. “I’ll fix him some soup. He’ll be all right.” In the next shot, he comes into the room where Gideon is sleeping and puts a small bowl of unappetizing chicken soup on a night table. Then he opens a bottle of Gideon’s pills, studies them, and begins exploring the bedroom drawers. He also sits down and reads the family Bible, nodding at something he finds there.
Most of the succeeding sequences are neatly rounded episodes with ironic, troubling, or amusing endings. After spending time in the hospital, Gideon, still in great pain, is brought home by the family and gently placed on the living room couch. Harry, who has been upstairs bathing, comes down in his house robe to view the patient. “Boy! I thought you about to cross the river,” he chuckles, “You look good!” Grinning, king of all he surveys, he reclines in an easy chair and calls out to Babe Brother: “Hey, daddy-o, can you just turn off that tap in the bathroom? My hand’s too weak.” Babe Brother starts to rush off, but Harry holds him back for a moment: “Say, can you do me another favor? My back kinda hurts. I need some pills.” Then he turns to Susie and asks her to bring him coffee. Turning to Junior, he asks for an old newspaper. (p.84) Junior reluctantly brings the paper, which Harry spreads on the floor under his big, bare feet. As he begins clipping his toenails, he beckons for Junior to lean down to him. “I will leave you something in my will,” he whispers.
Soon Harry’s pals become regular visitors. On a sunny afternoon, Harry lolls in a backyard chair near Susie’s dying garden, wearing a sport coat and a loud tie, while Okra and the lame Herman (Julius Harris) chase down Gideon’s rooster. Eagerly anticipating the possibility that Susie might soon become a widow, Okra asks, “You think Gideon’s going to live to see the month out?” In a scholarly/philosophical tone, Harry quotes from Ezekiel 37, in which Satan speaks to Christ: “‘I came upon the valley of bones. … Heaven is lost to thee.’” Then he adds, “We all got to make away.” Never a friend to farm animals, he hypnotizes the captured rooster by drawing a line in the dirt in front its beak, but just when he picks up an ax to chop off the bird’s head, the boy next door blatts his horn and the rooster escapes. Okra sits down wearily in the shade. “You gotta catch the next one,” he says, “’cause I’m outta breath.”
Gideon’s condition becomes so serious that the preacher from the family’s church (Wonderful Smith) arrives at Susie’s door accompanied by several choir ladies garbed in black robes and asks to pray over the sick man. Standing at the foot of the bed, he notices a small mound of dry leaves, known in the South as Plummer Christian leaves, beneath Gideon’s feet. Sheepishly, Susie admits to using the leaves along with “cold oil” to abate fever. The preacher sternly disapproves of these vestiges of conjuring: “Sister, I would think you would rely on prayer rather than these old-fashioned remedies.” As he reads from the Bible and the choir ladies sing, the camera moves down to a close-up of Gideon’s ear. Burnett’s original plan for the film was to introduce a second dream sequence at this point, involving the woman in the photograph we saw at the beginning. The setting is a photography shop in the 1930s, and the woman is posing for a picture:
What scene would you like in the background?
We have plantations. The woman shakes her head.
Natchez, cotton fields, Harlem, sunflowers, the Mississippi river.
Put the river behind me.
(Burnett 1996, 80)
(p.85) A still picture of the Mississippi appears on the screen behind the woman and then transforms into a moving picture. A storm builds in the distant sky beyond the river, and thunder is heard. A shirtless boy is riding a grey mule in the rain, and Gideon walks toward him along a picket fence. Gideon encounters a large puddle, which turns into a black abyss, and he falls into darkness.
Neither the preacher’s magic nor Susie’s can overcome Harry’s apparent spell. While the visitors pray, Harry is ensconced in the kitchen, giving Babe Brother a lesson in how to cheat at cards. Nearby, Okra cleans a pistol (later we learn that he’s a security guard), and Herman covers his head with a towel and inhales steam from a bowl to relieve sinus pain. Out in the dining room, Junior tries to fix a broken ceiling light while talking with Pat about the problem of Harry’s continued presence. “He’s the kind of guy you’d like to take out in the woods and leave under a rock,” Junior says. Pat wonders where Harry “gets the power to summon up all his raffish friends,” who “smell like moth balls.” At that moment, as if Harry had somehow caused it, the wires in Junior’s hands cross and an electric shock knocks him off his stepladder.
Soon Harry takes complete control of Babe Brother, who treats Linda as his slave. The feisty modern woman who was critical of her husband is reduced to cooking dinner for him and all of Harry’s friends (among the large group there is only one woman). When she tries to help Babe Brother carve turkey, he slaps her. Silently and tearfully, she threatens him with a carving fork. In the dining room, party music plays and Harry regales a crowd with stories of the old days. As Linda serves food to everyone, she notices a man at the table slipping a fork in his pocket and a woman putting a cigarette out in her plate. Unable to tolerate the humiliation any longer, she drops a slice of cake on Harry, sticks Okra with a fork, and leaves, taking Sunny with her to Junior’s house.
From this point onward, the professional woman becomes increasingly maternal and a full member of a family that she previously disdained and that Babe Brother wants to escape. One peculiarity of the film, as Valerie Smith has remarked, is that in somewhat domesticating Linda by putting her in company with Susie and Junior’s wife Pat, it tends to “relegate women to the conventional roles of maintaining culture and tradition” (2003, 879). But one could argue that men in the film have similar roles. When Babe Brother ultimately rids himself of Harry’s influence and reconciles with his wife and family, he makes peace with culture and tradition without abandoning his profession. The whole purpose of the film, which perhaps could be described as paradoxically conservative, is to acknowledge the need for progress while (p.86) also paying respect to the black southern values that enabled certain working-class families to survive.
Soon after his wife leaves home, Babe Brother goes for a walk in the woods with Harry, and the walk has the same mysterious, sinister quality as the one Gideon took earlier in the rail yard. Harry leads the dazed-looking young man across a stream filled with boulders, while on the sound track we hear strange nondiegetic music. Babe Brother finds a huge dead bird and lifts it from the ground. “I could swear I heard my son calling me,” he says to Harry. “Maybe I better get back. Maybe something’s wrong.” Cut to Linda, who tells Junior and Pat that Babe Brother unintentionally bruised her eye. She announces a plan to take Sunny and leave for good if Harry again sets foot in her house. “I want my daddy,” Sunny says.
As the family crisis deepens, Harry begins to wear out his welcome. That evening he goes to the bedroom where Susie is watching over Gideon, touches her shoulder in a comforting gesture, and offers to take her place while she has a cup of coffee down in the kitchen. His real purpose is to give his pal Okra an opportunity to offer a tentative proposal of marriage. Clad in a security-guard uniform and bearing gifts, Okra has entered the house and taken a seat at the kitchen table. “I brought you these greens,” he tells Susie, “and some salt meat.” His outrageous but comic courtship is intercut with shots of Harry pacing the bedroom and gazing at Gideon’s body, which stirs slightly. It’s almost as if a couple of vultures were sensing potential death. Okra sits across from Susie, smiles, and explains in polite fashion that he has come on a mission of mercy: “You know, Gideon and I are Lodge brothers, and it’s always been policy to take care of the wives. If something happened … consider this a conditional proposal to be first in line.” Susie, her eyes tearing up, stands with great dignity and softly but strongly delivers a superb put-down. “Excuse me,” she says, “I have to go feed my dog.”
On the next day, things fall apart. The chickens in Susie and Gideon’s backyard wander from their coop, and the garden looks dead. Babe Brother drives up outside Junior’s house but remains in the closed car, frowning and sulking, unwilling to humble himself by trying to reunite with his wife and child in Junior’s presence. Back at Susie’s house, Hattie, who is helping wash dishes, gives Susie advice: “I’m telling you, Harry is evil! I’m warning you, you can’t keep a wild animal around children.” Upstairs in his bedroom, Harry studies himself in a mirror. He opens his door to leave but cautiously sneaks out when he spies Sunny sweeping the floor. Hattie wryly suggests poisoning Harry to get rid of him, and when he enters the kitchen she makes a haughty (p.87) exit. “As God is my witness,” Harry says, “I have never done anything to that woman.” Susie quietly confronts him: “I have to know who’s in my house. … Are you a friend, Harry?” The confrontation has a poignant quality because of Susie’s air of regret and Harry’s quiet acceptance of the situation; one can almost feel for him when he says he isn’t all bad. Burnett had wanted to show more sympathetic aspects of the character in these late scenes, in which Hattie would have begun to seem a bit self-righteous after discovering some of Harry’s letters to one of his wives. As the film stands, Harry simply compares himself to the boy next door with the trumpet. “If he was a friend he’d stop irritating people,” Harry says, “but if he stopped practicing he wouldn’t be perfect at what he does.” Repressing tears, Susie announces, “I want you to go.” Harry tells her he’ll be back later that night to collect his things and asks her to put a baby picture that has been gathering dust in his wallet with the other baby photos on her mirror. Patting her on the shoulder, he says he truly hopes Gideon will regain health.
The climactic portion of the film opens with a melodramatic gesture perfectly appropriate to the subtle atmosphere of magic realism Burnett has maintained throughout. Clouds race through the night sky, sweeping past a full moon, and a storm breaks out. Harry, surrounded by “raffish friends,” is playing poker with Babe Brother. “Come on and go with us, boy,” he says (Babe Brother is “boy” even to the man he’s chosen as a model), and breaks into homely, misogynistic poetry: “I know your mind is on your wife, but you should never treat a woman as an equal. Get another woman … you ever heard of a real man having only one woman? One woman put you out you have to have another woman put you in. You don’t drive around without a spare tire, do you? The more mules you got, the easier it is to plow.” With a devilish laugh, he takes Babe Brother’s hand. “Come on with us, son,” he says. “We’ll show you some steamin’ hot juke joints!” A knife has fallen onto the floor beside the table and Harry picks it up, giving it to Babe Brother with a wink.
Rushing into the storm, Babe Brother goes to Susie’s house and tries to get one of his suitcases out of her garage. “Have you lost your mind?” she asks him sweetly, reminding him that his son and sick father are in the house. The roof is leaking and she needs his help, but all he can say is, “I’ve been busy.” Soon Junior, Pat, Ronda, and Linda arrive as a group and go upstairs to move Gideon’s bed away from the leak in the roof. Downstairs in the kitchen, Babe Brother sharpens his knife while Sunny watches from beneath the kitchen table. Junior comes downstairs in a rage, ready for a fight. “I bet if your master asked you to fix the roof,” he yells at Babe Brother, “you’d have re-built the (p.88) whole damn house!” Long-festering conflict breaks into the open. “I’m so sick of people telling me to do this and that!” Babe Brother shouts, and asks’ What’s my name?” Junior looks puzzled. “You dumbass,” he replies, “it’s Babe Brother!” “My name is Samuel!” Babe Brother cries. “Samuel!” When Junior shoves him, Babe Brother throws a punch. The women upstairs hear crashing sounds and rush down to the kitchen, where they find Junior choking Babe Brother, pinning him to the table. Babe Brother grabs his knife. Pat eventually calms Junior, but when he releases Babe Brother’s throat we see that Susie has stepped between the two men—her third intervention—and is holding the blade of Babe Brother’s knife in her bleeding hand.
In the shocked aftermath, Ronny holds Babe Brother’s son protectively in her arms and the pregnant Pat fears for a moment that her water is breaking. The two brothers rush off with their mother to the emergency room. Burnett originally intended to show a receptionist discussing payment with Susie, who explains that she has Medicare. In the completed film the scenes at the hospital have almost no dialogue and show the resolution of conflict through glances, gestures, and facial expressions. They also bring the family out of their increasingly closed-in domestic world and into a larger community. In the waiting room, Junior and Babe Brother sit on either side of their mother, and a white girl across from them smiles in companionship, showing her bandaged hand to Susie. Time passes in a series of dissolves as patients enter and exit and as an injury victim accompanied by police is brought in on a stretcher. Junior wanders over to the receptionist and asks why the place is so crowded. “Well,” the receptionist answers, “it’s Friday night. There’s a full moon.” Burnett has remarked that he intended this to be true to life, but that viewers often take it as another of the film’s magical effects. Big city emergency rooms do in fact get more crowded on moonlit Friday nights, but one of the interesting things about To Sleep with Anger is the way it repeatedly makes it difficult for us to distinguish between the realistic and the magical.
As more time passes, Junior and Babe Brother have a friendly talk and smile at one another. Susie notices this and visibly relaxes. Glancing at a nearby row of seats, she sees a mother and child and smiles at the child. Blues music rises on the sound track as Burnett transitions to the next morning and to the beginning of the end. The cornstalks in Susie’s back garden are nearly dead, and the neighboring boy is feeding his pigeons. Together, Junior and Babe Brother bring Susie home, only to find Harry, who had told Susie he was leaving, standing in the doorway. With her bandaged hand, Susie reaches out to touch Babe Brother, as if protecting him. “I can’t believe what I heard happened,” (p.89) Harry says. Linda rushes downstairs to meet the returning family and accidentally kicks over a coffee can full of Sunny’s marbles, which spill on the floor. “I just came to get my things,” Harry explains. Everybody gives him an unfriendly look and Babe Brother, Linda, and Sunny pointedly stand close together. When Susie goes up to see Gideon, Harry takes a seat, sipping from a teacup. As if hypnotized, Babe Brother walks over to him, but Linda, whose influence is now greater than Harry’s, steps between them. “I think you should go see how your daddy is,” she says to her husband, and advises him to change out of his bloody shirt. After she and her husband leave to visit Gideon, Harry, looking more aged, gets up from his seat and we see a close-up of his feet as he walks into the area of Sunny’s spilled marbles and broom. Upstairs, the family around Gideon’s bed hear a crash. On the floor of the kitchen is a broken teacup. Harry has slipped on a marble and fallen, and as he tries to get up he grabs his arm from the pain of a heart attack. He falls back, dead.
The film is almost musical in its “movements” or variation of moods. After Harry’s death peace arrives, and gentle comedy is mixed with absurdist humor. Medics are called in to examine Harry but leave the body where it is, explaining that it’s the county’s job to collect the corpse. As a result, Harry lies flat on his back in the middle of the floor for the rest of the film, blocking a doorway and covered with his pallet. “Honey,” Linda says to Sunny in a sweet tone, “I’ve told you over and over again, pick up the marbles.” Hattie and her brother Marsh arrive, and Marsh, obviously pleased, gives money to Ronda, asking her to go on a long walk with Sunny. (“Take your time,” he tells her.) Harry’s pals show up, and together with Hattie they gather around the body. The camera looks up at them from the perspective of the dead man. “Anybody mind if I take a look at him?” Hattie asks as she lifts the pallet to make sure he’s really expired.
Not long afterward, as if by magic, Gideon regains consciousness and slowly gets out of bed. When he makes his way downstairs, he finds almost every character in the film gathered around the dining room table, not far from the body, eating Kentucky Fried Chicken off paper plates and discussing the situation. Babe Brother argues with the authorities on the telephone. (“If he was white,” one character says, “they’d have him on his feet and out of here.”) “You’ve been out for almost three weeks,” Junior explains to his father. The local preacher adds, “We’ve had some long conversations with the Lord about you.” Gideon sits down at the table. “Who’s that?” he asks, gesturing toward Harry with a chicken wing. Hattie smiles: “He dropped dead.” Gideon looks at Susie’s bandaged hand and asks what happened. (p.90) “Oh, I cut it on an old rusty knife,” she says. The two brothers silently exchange glances.
That evening Harry is still on the floor, and the gathering in the house has become a combination sleep-in and involuntary wake. Across the street, a small crowd of curious neighbors gathers to witness the strange goings-on. Inside, all is well. Junior reads a magazine as Pat and his children huddle on a couch beside him. Babe Brother embraces Linda and sits at her feet while Sunny sleeps nearby. “It was like I was swimming in muddy water,” Babe Brother says, and for the first time he seems to acknowledge the wisdom of his forebears: “You know how country people try to tell you what Hell is like? It was like an internal struggle.” Linda nuzzles him and calls him Samuel. Gideon asks when his two boys are going to fix the roof. Babe Brother says he needs to rest a bit, but then checks himself: “Anytime.” Gideon shakes his head and considers his old friend Harry. “Here I am worried about myself, and poor old Harry resting on the kitchen floor.”
The next morning Harry is still resting on the kitchen floor—even in death, he’s a guest who won’t leave. Gideon and Susie sit at the dining table with the preacher, who has fallen asleep in his chair. As Susie tends to a cutting of a plant for her garden, Gideon, very quietly, not wanting to wake the preacher, tells another of his naughty stories, which in some ways is a comment on the film we’ve been watching. “A man wants to make up his own mind about Heaven and Hell,” Gideon whispers. “He gets a round-trip ticket to heaven. Finds everybody working in the fields because idleness is the Devil’s workshop. Gets an express trip to Hell and finds everybody kicking back and taking it easy. ‘What are you doin’?’ he asks. ‘Sinnin.’ Just then the Devil walks by and …”
Susie cuts him off. “I don’t want to hear any jokes about black people in Hell.” Frustrated, Gideon explains that race isn’t central to the story: “White people, anybody!” She shows him her wounded hand. He smiles and shakes his head. “It’s just a tale,” he says sweetly.
The ending is unexpected, charming, and graceful. Suddenly, briefly, as if nature were reminding us of its arbitrary magic, Gideon’s entire house trembles from a light earthquake. In a long shot, we see a bunch of curious kids gathered across the street, one of whom shouts, “You still have that dead body?” A kindly neighbor lady knocks on the door and offers help for all the folks in the house who have been waiting so long for the morgue truck to arrive. She’s set up a picnic table and invites everyone over for food. In a wide shot from outside the front door of Gideon and Susie’s house, she leads them (p.91) out, and the large cast of actors exits one by one or two by two, as if for a curtain call at a play. On the sound track, a bit of nondiegetic music is mixed with the kid next door practicing his trumpet. Babe Brother, last to exit, turns to look back into the house before closing the door. Inside, we see Harry’s body—the lead actor taking his final bow.
The next shot is our first view of the kid in his room practicing his trumpet. Burnett had originally wanted him to get slightly better as the film went along and planned to end the film with shots of Susie’s plants taking root. For me, the ending we have is much better, partly because it’s another instance of magic and the miraculous. The boy suddenly hits a perfect note and begins to take command of the instrument. As the final credits roll, his playing leads into the nondiegetic sound of a beautiful jazz tune featuring a trumpet solo. To Sleep with Anger is in some sense a comedy, and the closing moments are charming because of their relative decenteredness, their focus on a minor character. They bring harmony to an entire neighborhood and are perfectly in keeping with the film’s overarching spirit of humane sociality.