My doorknob keeps on turnin’
It must be spooks around my bed
My doorknob keeps on turnin’
must be spooks around my bed
I have a warm, old feelin’
and the hair risin’ on my head
Trust me. The paragraph which follows was not cribbed from an old sociology paper of mine from my university days. It really does have something to do with Charles Burnett’s To Sleep With Anger (1990).
When one loses one’s ancestral language, be it Ukrainian or Hindi or Ktnaxa or Wolof or any of the hundreds of others that are part of the Canadian mosaic, a big part of one’s ancestral culture is also lost. This is a loss of which many of us are painfully aware. In the context of North America in the 20th century, the loss really strikes home in the third generation. The first generation of immigrants struggles simply to survive, and drives the second generation to consolidate the successes which have been achieved. There is often little time for self-reflection, and a fierce desire to assimilate, to shed a perceived stigma of “otherness”. Traditions are sometimes abandoned, but more often they’re simply neglected in the busyness and business of making a living. By the third generation security begins to substitute for struggle. The memory of grandparents is still strong, and suddenly there’s time to think on the past. Some of us try to reconnect with our elders, with lost languages, memories, and faiths.
One of the things that watching To Sleep With Anger reminded me of was that, as generations succeed one another, there is something even more evanescent than faith or language—that generous weave of proverb & superstition & gesture that my parents and grandparents took for granted as either charms against ill fortune or tokens of good. Drop a fork, a man’s coming. The left hand itching means money. Cold weather when the cat’s washing its ears. This weave had the same rich texture in Mississippi as in my home province of Saskatchewan. It’s there in the lyrics of Robert Johnson and Charlie Patton. In To Sleep With Anger, Charles Burnett draws upon both the tensions between generations, and the literal spells of traditional wisdom.
To Sleep With Anger is a story about the past surging into the present and troubling the lives of a middle-class black family in L.A. The father, Gideon, and mother, Suzie, are a long way away from the world of the Deep South in which they were born. For the two of them, however, distance and memory are asynchronous. Their home is a spacious, immaculate, suburban-style dream, but in the backyard is a big chicken coop straight off the bayou. As another reviewer commented, one of the disconcerting things about the movie is that although almost the entire story takes place around that home in South Central, “half the film seems to take place in Mississippi while the other half seems to take place in downtown L.A.”
The effect is deliberate. In this movie, a broom falling is more ominous than gunfire. Director Burnett opens his film with a still-life portrait of Gideon that’s a Kodak moment one minute, and a kind of voodoo altar the next. Like the living candelabras of Renoir’s Beauty and the Beast, or John Goodman walking through the flames in the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink, this is cinema that locks itself into the mind’s eye.
Gideon and Suzie’s two sons, Babe Brother (Richard Brooks) and Junior (Carl Lumbly), are in that third-generation-successful phase I described earlier. Respecting his parents’ values while building a career for himself, Junior has made peace with the past and the present. His younger brother is adrift. He’s got too much time to think. He’s embarrassed over what he sees as his parents’ clinging to remnants of a humiliating past of slavery and superstition, and resentful of his brother’s roles as Model Son, Model Husband, Model Mr. Middle Class. Babe Brother is most angry about having the time to be angry. Why isn’t his life filled with some kind of passionate intensity? Why isn’t it dangerous?
There’s someone out there who’ll answer that question with a vengeance. He has a different name in every culture, but he’s a part of every mythology. The Trickster. He’s Raven and Hare and Coyote and Anansi the Spider, Loki and Nanabozo, Dionysus and the Green Man, Groucho Marx and The Guizer. He’s a force without direction, a player without conscience, a terrifying catalyst for change. In To Sleep With Anger, his name’s Harry Mention and he’s an old friend of Gideon’s.
You sicken me with lies,
With truthful lies….
Is dirt and ugliness,
And rotting hearts,
And wild hyenas howling
In your soul’s waste land
From the moment Harry stops by for a visit, every underlying tension within the family is edged towards the breaking point. You’re a lot safer listening to the Blues than living them. It’s no coincidence that when Gideon and Suzie go to church, the preacher’s text is Matthew 10, verses 34 to 36: “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father…and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.”
Danny Glover plays Harry Mention, in one of the best roles of his career. Harry’s a slick, dapper Southern Gentleman. He’s got all the right manners. All he’s lacking is a heart. Think of him as the Vacuum Cleaner Salesman from Hell. You know the family’s in trouble when he responds to Suzie’s praise for his old-fashioned courtesy with the comment that it’s natural because “You had to know how to act right where we came from. You had to know how to say ‘Yes, Sir’ ‘No, Sir’. You had to know your place.” Nothing is what it seems. As Harry himself says, “I don’t believe in sin, but there’s the good and the evil…and evil’s something you have to work at.” He works at it so hard and quietly that no one notices until it’s almost too late.
Harry’s nemeses are Suzie and Gideon’s young grandson. Suzie through her quiet faith and strength, the young boy through his innocence. Growing up as much in his grandparents’ home as in his own, he is the untroubled bridge between generations. His simple presence unnerves Harry because in the boy’s eyes all his masks fall away. As far as Harry’s concerned, the broom the boy always seems to have in his hand might has well be a stake.
That’s more than an idle metaphor. I didn’t fully appreciate what was happening behind the scenes until I looked up some superstitions on the Internet. One site listed 75 about brooms. All of the following play a part in To Sleep With Anger: “If you sweep in front of someone, you are sweeping them off the earth.” “When a broom falls across the door, it indicates that you will walk on strange ground.” “Touching anyone with a broom while you are sweeping causes bad luck.” “When someone is hit with a broom, he should spit on the broom and take ten steps backwards so he will neither have bad luck or be arrested.”
Harry is right to be nervous. Tricksters have their moments of glory, they shake things up and make them stronger for the shaking, but their comeuppance is inevitable and usually very undignified.
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
Without access to a copy of the film, this column remains a work in progress. The Criterion Film Collection released To Sleep With Anger in 2019, but it’s not on their streaming channel at the time I’m writing this, in early 2020. The good news is that the movie is out there again.