To Sleep With Anger – The Criterion Collection (Blu-ray Review)

For every In the Heat of the Night, the Criterion Collection has found time to pick films to add to their library depicting black life that stays away from focusing on racial oppression, crime, gangs, or other tropes. To Sleep with Anger is an interesting choice. Not a wildly popular film, but the winner of multiple Independent Spirit Awards, and one that’s been added to the National Film Registry. It’s a slow-burn drama that puts focus on a family dealing with tensions that are beginning to boil over. There’s a poetry to what we are seeing and hearing on screen, which was undoubtedly the intention of award-winning writer/director Charles Burnett. Now the film has been restored and fitted with some new interviews and more for this wonderful Blu-ray package.


Set in the early 90s, the film revolves around a family in South Central Los Angeles who present what a positive community looks like. There is love in this family that consists of working, well-educated, and well-spoken adults. Soon, Harry (Danny Glover), an old friend from the south, arrives to visit Gideon (Paul Butler) and his wife Suzie (Mary Alice), which reignites some old tensions. Harry has not been seen for many years, but his presence seems to bring out some less-than-favorable instincts between the various members of the family.

Made for what I can only imagine was a minimal budget, it’s fascinating to watch a film like this today. While Burnett indeed shows skill in how he handles actors, let alone allows for some evocative imagery to shine through, To Sleep with Anger is not a flashy film. There are hints at magical realism here, given the impact of Harry’s character, and the devotion to religion that many of the characters have. And yet, the film never steps into that direction entirely.

Nowadays there would likely be some need to add in a fantastical element to help get the film made and considered by a studio, to keep it from merely being randomly thrown out as a release on a streaming service. Point being, something about the purity of this film is refreshing. It’s a character study that feels very theatrical in its use of characters and minimal locations. It subverts a need to go big and broad but doesn’t stay away from delivering on dramatic revelations that lead to choices that lead to the family finding ways to come together, rather than proceed further towards hate.

There is plenty to admire in this. A film so deeply rooted in its characters, providing a positive depiction of black life in the process, is quite stirring. The inherent drama coming from the presence of a mysterious man is a fine way to understand who the various characters are. We see a lot of strife between Richard Brooks’ Samuel and his older brother, Junior (Carl Lumbly). Mary Alice adds a nice sense of authority, while Ethel Ayler’s Hattie adds a lot as a prime adversary to Harry. The interactions between this extended family means seeing how their lives are, which is a nice change from standard depictions of this location.

As mentioned, this film is set in South Central, and yet it’s not about gangs or criminal activity. These are working class people that don’t need to spend the runtime concerned with drugs, drive-bys or whatever else. It’s not to say these aren’t issues that are not important in some way, but Burnett’s story is another example of how films about black life and culture do not need to focus solely on challenges faced thanks to historical and communal strife.

While not the first to have this approach, thinking of Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It was similar, as far as telling a modern story about black people. Burnett has an accomplished career as a filmmaker, among other activities, but pushed his efforts towards a movie with a specific focus. He’s made films that go into topics of race, oppression, etc., but To Sleep with Anger has other priorities. Chief among them is getting a crew of fine actors doing well to deliver on this story being told.

Understandably, the film’s legacy seems relatively small, all things considered. I mean, you have Danny Glover providing an excellent and tricky performance, which arrived after he became something of a mainstream star, following two Lethal Weapon films. That may have helped get this film a budget, but I can only be happy to know that To Sleep with Anger has been looked at fondly enough over time to be pushed back into the social consciousness by way of this Criterion release, let alone being picked out by the Library of Congress.

Whether familiar or not, any film fan should be happy to check this film out. The story of black life, with social issues kept mainly in the background, allows for an intimate look at a family. It speaks well to the variety of films we can see that concern any kind of people, let alone provides for a good example of classy filmmaking.


Encoding: MPEG-4 AVC

Resolution: 1080p

Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1

Details: This new digital transfer was created in 4K resolution on a Scanity film scanner from the 35 mm original camera negative. The image was cleaned and color-corrected at Colorworks, and approved by director Charles Burnett.

Clarity/Detail: As To Sleep with Anger is now getting a deluxe release, it is easy to see the care and effort put into this transfer. The restoration doesn’t do anything to take away from what a film from 1990 looked like. Instead, we get all the grain one could expect, best conveying what was captured, while allowing us to see all the detail in the homes we stay in. There’s a clear picture here, which allows for a great appreciation for the production design to convey the type of living this family had.

Depth: A proper handle on character spacing goes a long way to show the disparity between various family members.

Black Levels: Black levels are deep. Many scenes take place in the daytime or indoors, but lighting allows for excellent use of shadow, which always registers well.

Color Reproduction: The color reproduction for this film is terrific. It’s reflected mainly in costume design, as we see various suits, dresses, and outfits that bring in a nice level of color to give off a warm feeling for the film.

Flesh Tones: The actors all look great with this presentation. Between the close-ups and wider shots, there’s always a good sense of texture to observe with these characters.

Noise/Artifacts: Nothing to note.



Audio Format(s): English 2.0 Surround

Subtitles: English SDH

Details: The original 2.0 surround soundtrack was remastered from the LCR magnetic track at Chace Audio.

Dynamics: Stephen James Taylor’s blues-influenced score is low-key, yet effective. Dialogue is the film’s focus, and it’s presented cleanly, along with ambient noise, sound effects, and all the other elements. Not the most complicated audio track, but it’s been well-restored for this release.

Low-Frequency Extension: N/A

Surround Sound Presentation: N/A

Dialogue Reproduction: Everyone sounds clean and clear.



I’ll take this time to point out that I really enjoy the cover art for this release, as it’s beautifully painted imagery. As far as the extras, they are relatively minimal. There’s a new interview feature involving Burnett, Glover, and others, along with another short featurette, and a wonderful conversation piece. It would have been nice to get more insight into the making of the film, it’s reception and impact, but I’m happy with what has been given for a movie like this.

Features Include:

  • Of Family and Folklore (HD, 23:55) – Burnett, Glover, actress Sheryl Lee Ralph, and associate producer Linda Koulisis discuss the film.
  • Charles Burnett Tribute (HD, 6:29) – This is a short tribute produced for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Governors Awards from 2017 to honor Burnett. Would have liked to hear a lot more from the various filmmakers and actors we see snippets of.
  • A Walk with Charles Burnett (HD, 56:09) – As a big fan of Robert Townsend, it was great to see him speaking with Burnett in this near hour-long conversation, featuring the two of them walking the streets of Watts, and going over areas seen in Burnett’s first full-length features, Killer of Sheep. Makes me wish that film was also packed with this release.
  • PLUS – An essay by critic K. Austin Collins



To Sleep with Anger is the kind of film bound to be discovered by film fans, ideally showing them something new, let alone a reason to check out the work of Charles Burnett. The Blu-ray release does well to restore this film to look and sound great, with a handful of extras to further add reasons to want to dig deeper. That’s all you can hope for sometimes, but this is quite the film to tap into, whether it’s for the nature of the story, or getting to see Glover in an atypical performance in a movie with a lot of appeal.

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Writer/Reviewer, Film Lover, Podcaster, Gamer, Comic Reader, Disc Golfer & a Lefty. There are too many films, TV, books, etc. for me to list as favorites, but I can assure that the amount film knowledge within my noggin is ridiculous, though I am always open to learning more. You can follow me on Twitter @AaronsPS4, see what else I am up to at TheCodeIsZeek.com & check out my podcast, Out Now with Aaron and Abe, on iTunes.

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