Charles Burnett's brand of humor and original mix of drama and irony are evident in his best film, To Sleep With Anger. Set in South Central, it concerns the problems of a black middle-class family headed by Gideon (Paul Butler), a retired man who raises chickens, and his wife Suzie (Mary Alice), who teaches midwifery.
The placidity of their lives is interrupted by the arrival of Harry (Danny Glover), who grew up with Gideon and Suzie in the Deep South. A strange interloper disrupting the lives of the tightly-knit family, Harry appears on their doorstep with a winning smile, claiming he's on his way to San Francisco. Gideon and Suzie ask him to move in and make himself at home, which he does comfortably.
Harry could be both charming and rude. While Gideon and Suzie are at church, he goes through their house like a burglar, looking into drawers, reading old letters. He believes in spells, and when Sunny, Babe Brother's son, accidentally brushes his shoes with a broom, he behaves as if the boy aimed a gun at him. At a reunion of old Southern friends in L.A., Harry insults the matronly Hattie, a former girlfriend who's now born-again Christian, by making references to the “house” her mother ran.
Hattie warns the family that Harry is evil: “Everybody associated with him winds up with pennies over his eyes.” There are hints that Harry had something to do with the murder of a black man, made to look like a lynching to put the blame on whites. Harry spreads mistrust and discord: Babe Brother and Linda split up, and Gideon falls mysteriously ill.
Harry is a demon, the soul of the Southern black sharecropper, who comes to haunt gentle folks who fondly remember the past in terms of food, music and farming. Densely written by Burnett, and played by Glover with seductive ease, Harry is by turns naive, threatening, sophisticated–and lost.
At first, as the critic Vincent Canby noted, To Sleep With Anger seems to take place in an idealized black middle-class landscape, identified with TV's “Cosby Show.” But gradually it becomes a more complex, unpredictable comedy of substance, keeping the audience in suspense as to when the next change in tone. Though small in scope, To Sleep With Anger contains big comic scenes and a clamorous ending.