Folk culture and masculine identity Charles Burnett's 'To Sleep with Anger.'.
It seems that the object of all films should be to generate a sense of fraternity, a community; however, for an independent film-maker that is the same thing as swimming against a raging current. (Burnett, "Inner City Blues" 225)
To Sleep with Anger, a 1990 film written and directed by Charles Burnett and starring Danny Glover, Richard Brooks, and Mary Alice, recalls other recent films that have explored the nihilism of African-American men's lives through conventions of urban realism and film noir. In portraying the tensions within a Southern black family living in Los Angeles, To Sleep with Anger, like Devil in a Blue Dress (1995), evaluates gendered and racial identities shaped by the legacies of slavery and sharecropping. And, like Devil in a Blue Dress, Clockers (1995), and Boyz 'n the Hood (1991), To Sleep with Anger explores the ways in which African-American identity is influenced by the pressures to assimilate to an urban middle class. Each film analyzes how common contemporary values and behaviors foster or disrupt familial stability. More than these other films, however, To Sleep with Anger offers a complex meditation on the role African-American traditions should play in contemporary experience. These traditions encompass gender roles inherited from the rural South that either support or undercut family and the larger black community. The traditions also include the many African-American folk forms and motifs on which the film relies to explore the viability of gender roles.
In effect, To Sleep with Anger illustrates how film can adapt folklore in commenting on contemporary mores, not only by adding traditional tales, spirituals, and blues songs to a soundtrack, but also by creating a narrative that portrays and tests the values expressed through such vernacular forms. Although scholars such as Jacquie Jones have noted Burnett's debt to oral folk culture (Jones 22), previous studies of To Sleep with Anger have avoided either closely examining the film's use of folk materials or theorizing about the ramifications of adapting the vernacular to film. This oversight is unfortunate, for Manthia Diawara and others have presented useful models for examining the role of folklore in contemporary film.(1) In analyzing the narrative structure of Wend Kuuni (1983), Diawara, for instance, emphasizes how film can adapt folk motifs in creating "a new order [of meaning and society] to replace the old and stagnating one" (201). That To Sleep with Anger is also concerned with cultural inheritance and transformation does not necessitate using Diawara's narratological approach for analyzing a folk-inspired film. Yet neglecting folklore's contributions to Burnett's film not only limits understanding of To Sleep with Anger but also obscures alternatives to Hollywood's stereotypical ways of portraying black life and identity.
To Sleep with Anger stresses the continuing relevance of folklore for understanding African-American identities, especially their expression of agency or its lack. In addressing a cultural crisis over competing visions of African-American manhood and personal and social success, To Sleep with Anger refers to a conflict long reflected in divergent folk ideals of African-American power and authority. Invoking this cultural conflict, the film sets up an opposition among traditional models such as the diligent John Henry (who died proving that he could outperform a machine); the opportunistic, maneuvering trickster; and the aggressive, violent badman.(2) The film also recreates the process of folk expression, capturing both acts of storytelling and singing and the contexts in which audiences interpret these acts. Through such folkloric features, To Sleep with Anger urges viewers both to examine the extent to which manhood should be influenced by the heroic identities of the past and to test those qualities in men most necessary for personal, familial, and communal welfare. Specifically, the film performs a social role comparable to folklore by presenting alternative visions of manhood that the protagonist and viewers are called on to consider and, ultimately, to test in their daily lives. Thus, To Sleep with Anger fulfills the instructive and epistemological role of folklore, inviting viewers to consider racial and gender roles and responsibilities, as well as generational tensions and influences, in black communities.
Of course, narrative film seems antithetical to folk expression, in part because it often caters to a broad audience. In addition, the shapers of a film are usually not present when it screens, and remain distant from most who see it. Folklore, by contrast, demands an intimate relationship between artist and audience. As Dan Ben-Amos has asserted,
For the folkloric act to happen, two social conditions are necessary: both the performers and the audience have to be in the same situation and be part of the same reference group. This implies that folklore communication takes place in a situation in which people confront each other face to face and relate to each other directly. (12-13)
The small group does not simply serve as a passive receiver of the folk expression, but instead participates in the folkloric process, collaborating on a text with the artist (Ben-Amos 7). This process, for example, regularly occurs in African-American churches, where ministers may begin a sermon only to elicit no enthusiastic response from the congregants and then revise the sermon's rhetoric, tone, and even content to elicit vocal approval (Davis 27-28, 33-34). A pre-made text such as a film cannot foster this kind of interaction, which folklorists call "communal recreation" (Ben-Amos 7).
Yet recent reader-response and reception studies, such as Jacqueline Bobo's Black Women as Cultural Readers, can help us conceive of an active viewership (or readership) that makes film socially functional in ways similar to folklore. Bobo, for instance, examines African-American women's very active, often vocal processes of making sense of and judging such narratives as Terry McMillan's novel Waiting to Exhale (1992) and Julie Dash's film Daughters of the Dust (1992) (Bobo 4-5, 105-107). Bobo also records her audiences' efforts to gain insights from interpreting a text that can reinforce or enhance their understanding of the demands of familial or romantic relationships, or the vicissitudes of life in general (115-16). Although the contexts for reading novels and viewing films are different from those for responding to folklore, these audience members certainly see reading and viewing texts as pragmatic interpretive negotiations akin to those traditionally performed with folk tales.
As an independent film maker, Burnett has put his faith in such audience expectations, for he ideally envisions an active audience open to the kind of cultural work that folklore encourages.(3) A film maker committed to social awareness, he adapts conventions from the black vernacular to film, calling on viewers to develop a competency in folkloric methods of understanding the world. Yet Burnett acknowledges the difficulty of displacing the complacency-inducing viewing practices that standardized Hollywood films demand and that many audience members adopt:
The idea is not that something is going to change, but that you should create some form of debate and open up the problems. And even if the film reaches the audience, they are so conditioned by the Hollywood kind of film that, unless they are politically conscious, their idea of going to the movies is to be entertained. . . . How do you get people into a movie without being presumptuous about the message, but still maintain the faith that what you are doing stands on the right path and would affect people's consciousness and the way they see themselves? (qtd. in Hozic 476)
Burnett answers this question about audience with films such as To Sleep with Anger and Nightjohn (1996), which do not merely represent African-American social problems, but call on viewers to relate these problems to their own experience and to place them within a specifically African-American socio-historical context.
To Sleep with Anger, for instance, appeals to audience members' potential interest in narrative as a fictional means of analyzing, judging, and resolving social problems. This process, central to the film's address to its viewers, reflects the critical exertions of audiences engaged with traditional folklore. Not only does the film incorporate important elements of folklore, such as storytelling and song, then, but it demands that its audience make the same kinds of tough ethical decisions called for in the African-American vernacular tradition. Indeed, To Sleep with Anger embodies this process of decision-making in portraying the problems that the protagonist Samuel (Richard Brooks) has in establishing his identity.
Samuel (or Babe Brother, as he is usually called) must choose between the secure, family-oriented ethos of his parents and older brother Junior, and the self-interested, socially disruptive path taken by Harry, a visitor from the family's past. Burnett shapes To Sleep with Anger in a way that encourages viewers to appraise Samuel's choices and thus replicate, to a degree, the process of judgment central to the film's mission. To Sleep with Anger thus recalls the work long done by black vernacular forms: presenting models of African-American selfhood in a morally unstable world, building community, and fostering audience members' capacity for judgment. This updating of folk forms is clearly compatible with the initiatives the writer and film maker Toni Cade Bambara identified in the work of Burnett and other African-American independents who emerged from UCLA in the 1970s and 1980s: "In short," Bambara writes, "they were committed to developing a film language to respectfully express cultural particularity and Black thought" (119-20).
To Sleep with Anger signals this dedication to cultural particularity early in exploring generational tensions within the protagonist Babe Brother's middle-class family. Set in a comfortable black residential neighborhood in L.A.'s South Central, the film presents a contemporary world with ties to the rural past. Babe Brother's parents, Suzie (Mary Alice) and Gideon (Paul Butler), maintain a fine, commodious house with a chicken pen and splendid vegetable garden in the backyard. Suzie works as a midwife; Gideon, whom friends call "John Henry," has apparently retired with a comfortable pension; and everything seems to be running smoothly with the family, except for the conflicts between Babe Brother, on the one hand, and Gideon, Suzie, and Junior, on the other. This tension primarily proceeds from the disjunction between Babe Brother's materialistic values and Gideon's, Suzie's, and Junior's very different moral concerns. Suzie and Gideon have shaped a way of life based on family, church, and community service, to which Junior (Carl Lumbry), his wife Pat (Vonetta McGee), and their daughter Rhonda have willingly acceded. By contrast, Babe Brother and his wife Linda (Sheryl Lee Ralph) are an upwardly mobile, materialistic couple contemptuous of Suzie and Gideon's old-fashioned values.
When Harry (Danny Glover), an old Southern friend of Gideon and Suzie's, arrives, he further exacerbates the tensions between Babe Brother and his family with exciting tales of aggression and subversion. Harry, having lived a nomadic existence, seems used to fast women and violent men; although he has fathered at least two sons, he has mostly lived apart from family. Making himself comfortable in Gideon and Suzie's house, Harry attracts a group of thrill-loving old friends, displaces Gideon, who suffers a stroke, and comes between Babe Brother and Linda, who eventually takes their child Sonny to live with Pat and Junior. After deciding to reject his family and accompany Harry on his travels, Babe Brother fights with Junior and accidently injures Suzie with a knife. He finally comes to his senses and renews his commitment to his family. After Harry suffers a fatal heart attack, Gideon emerges from his coma, rejoins the family, and reunites with Samuel. The film ends with neighbors helping the family cope with the continuing presence of Harry's corpse.
The narrative focuses on the process of Babe Brother's moral education. A naive protagonist for much of the film, he must choose between two traditional models of masculinity, Gideon's and Harry's, both rooted in African-American survival strategies of the post-reconstruction South and the Great Migration. The strategies differ, of course. Gideon embodies domesticity, respectability, and the sharing of paternal authority. He works to maintain the backyard garden and chicken pen, irons his own clothes, attends church regularly, and discusses family problems with Suzie. By contrast, Harry embodies mobility, masculine presumption, and dishonesty. He has lived and traveled in the South and the Midwest before coming to Los Angeles. He tries to gain an advantage over a former lover, Hattie, now a born-again Christian, through his knowledge of her promiscuous past. And he substitutes vague boasts of his courage for direct assertions about his deeds. To Sleep with Anger acknowledges that Gideon's and Harry's strategies hold appeal for a contemporary generation. Indeed, the film suggests the inevitable continuity of certain masculine poses in black life, given the persistence of such social formations as segregation and black alienation from the mainstream. Yet To Sleep with Anger also clearly upholds Gideon as the man best able to facilitate familial well-being and stresses the nihilism and misogyny of Harry's model.
Nevertheless, Gideon presents an ambiguous model of heroism, defined not only by competence and strength, but also by self-denial and submission to others, behaviors that are at odds with Samuel's professional ambition and desire for dominance. To Sleep with Anger indicates that Gideon, along with Suzie, has worked hard and successfully at raising a family and creating a home. The beautiful backyard garden and Junior's and Samuel's material success signal the effectiveness of Gideon and Suzie's methods. In making the move from the South to Los Angeles, Gideon has sought to fit squarely within a safe, secure African-American middle-class life that suggests an apparent alignment with the dominant culture, though the latter rarely appears in the film. Yet Samuel, for one, questions the personal costs of such an alignment for a black man. Attempting to impart his ethos to Samuel in their confrontations over caring for Sonny, Gideon repeatedly tells Samuel that a father must think first of his child, not of himself or his career. Yet Samuel perceives this concern for others as weakness. And through Samuel's references to his father as a slave and a farm animal, the film indicates that, in spite of the obvious fruits of his labor, Gideon may have been an object of others' exploitation.(4)
Gideon's nickname, "John Henry," signals the film's ambivalence about his authority, for the legendary John Henry has an ambiguous value as a model of black masculinity. As Alan Dundes has noted, "John Henry is the strong, loyal, gentle Uncle Tom worker, the ideal 'good nigger,' whose total strength is devoted to doing the white man's assigned job. John Henry, strong as he is, constitutes no threat or danger to [his] white captain." Dundes speculates that John Henry's long popularity with white Americans may result from his innocuousness (569). Stories and songs from the black vernacular about the character emphasize not only his overwhelming strength, but also his ultimate failure to capitalize on his achievements. A number of songs that have been inspired by John Henry's legend, for instance, ultimately refuse to uphold him as a model:
Dis here hammer, hammer Kill John Henry, Can't kill me, O Lawd, can't kill me. (Odum and Johnson 236)
John Henry dies working, competing with a machine to prove the superiority of man over technology. And although John Henry proves his point about man's superiority, in many versions of the tale he primarily benefits a white employer who has placed a bet on him (Odum and Johnson 222).(5) Like John Henry, Gideon has lived for others, serving them as father, husband, employee, and church and community member. And, consequently, Samuel sees him as one without agency, as one whose selfhood has been displaced or suppressed.
Gideon's storytelling, however, indicates a sense of playfulness and creativity at odds with Samuel's narrow view of him. Through his tales, Gideon affirms the importance of storytelling as a means of fostering community and individuality. And in the process, Gideon's stories function as metacommentary for the film's endorsement of folk expression. In an early scene in the film, Gideon sits in the kitchen and tells his grandson Sonny a story as Suzie sorts through her plant cuttings. The story concerns a group of preachers who confess their sins to one another. The preacher who speaks last admits that his great sin is gossiping and then promises to tell the once secret sins of all others in attendance. At one level this story confirms Gideon's status as a moralist intent on teaching the necessity of suppressing one's capacity for sin; after all, Gideon's story suggests that most sins are likely to be revealed and punished. Yet the story also demonstrates Gideon's ability to use humor to communicate his understanding of human competition, particularly masculine competition. Rather than offering a tale with a bland moral hero, Gideon presents a character, the preacher, who markedly departs from the ethos Linda and Babe Brother associate with Gideon - devoting oneself to hard work and God and eschewing fun and play. The preacher is obviously a trickster who takes advantage of potentially more powerful opponents by assuming an innocuous persona and using it slyly to exploit others' weaknesses. Specifically, the gossip-prone preacher reveals the rewards of the silence and attentiveness that permit him to gain an advantage over his peers. Unlike Suzie, who judges the story to be inappropriate for Sonny, Gideon assumes its relevance. He has chosen a story that signifies (or comments) on quiet, observant Sonny, for the tale illustrates the potential power of traits that define the boy. The story, however, is less a prompt to imitate the gossiping preacher than a lesson in the need to know the dangers of self-exposure in a potentially hostile environment. Rather than suppressing Sonny's spirit, Gideon acknowledges and works to foster his grandson's strengths - his self-restraint, attentiveness, and independence. And in inviting Sonny to tell his own story, Gideon facilitates Sonny's creative expression. In the process, he opens up one of the few spaces in the film in which the boy uses his voice to express himself.
Babe Brother does not see Gideon's playful, potentially empowering side. Instead Babe Brother focuses on how his father is aligned with personal hardship and self-denial. During a disagreement with Linda, Babe Brother comments: "My daddy never gave me anything without my having to sweat for it. Every summer we had to pimp all of Big Mama's hundred-odd laying hens and go to church all day on Sunday. For Big Daddy, callouses and sweat were the mark of a man." In resisting this model of masculinity, Samuel is rejecting his interpolation into a social system, specifically a capitalist system, that allows achievement and even material success at the expense of personal agency. Samuel's fast-track, affluent life apparently differs from both Gideon's current retirement and his previous work experience, but Samuel is also bound by rules. Within his own and his parents' homes, he constantly confronts orders and demands that he believes stifle him.
In an early scene in the film, for instance, Linda upbraids Babe Brother for giving Sonny coffee after she has told the boy he cannot have it. The shirtless Babe Brother brazenly defies her, signaling his endorsement of freedom, sensuality, and appetite over the rule of discipline and constraint. And much later, after Linda and Sonny have moved in with Junior and Pat, the film presents a less defiant Babe Brother, numbed by his insertion into society as a man who must work to hold his family together: Parked in front of Junior and Pat's house, Babe Brother sits locked in his luxury car, oblivious to his angry brother yelling at him to "Grow up!" and to all else that surrounds him. He is oppressed by his connections to others, and by the expectation that he serve family members' or employers' needs.
Babe Brother's alienation from home and job reflects a social phenomenon journalist Ellis Close and others have identified among upwardly mobile, middle-class African Americans[middle dot] According to Close, a recent study found "blacks with a household income of $50,000 and more . . ., on average, appeared to be more alienated than poorer blacks" (7). Yet To Sleep with Anger refers to this problem in allegorizing the estrangement black men from different economic sectors experience in relation to the dominant culture. Moreover, the film calls on its viewers to draw on their own understanding of African America and its relation to the dominant culture to contextualize the protagonist Samuel's angst. To Sleep with Anger does not overtly relate social problems such as discrimination in the workplace to Samuel's experience, but the film does challenge viewers to construct various related causes for Samuel's alienation. The pressures to emulate Gideon as a father within the home are obvious, but the film also suggests Babe Brother has had to face expectations that he emulate John Henry in other realms. As a loan officer in a bank, Babe Brother can presumably show his professional competence, and he consequently earns enough money to finance his taste for designer clothes. Yet such a job, which depends largely on company policy and economic factors, most likely would not offer the autonomy for which Babe Brother longs. Drawing such conclusions about Babe Brother is not presumptuous; indeed, such interpretive work underscores the film's debt to folklore. Trickster stories, for instance, do not always offer full motivation for a hero's maneuvers or a detailed portrait of his environment (Roberts 36). Yet listeners can supply what is missing from the stories to reach judgments about the hero's actions. Thus, To Sleep with Anger prepares for Babe Brother's attraction to a disruptive form of masculinity that is new to him by suggesting, and by bluntly showing, a common range of apparently self-limiting social expectations attached to middle-class manhood.
Harry's appeal to Babe Brother lies in a freedom from a numbing, confining sense of social responsibility. It becomes clear very early in the film that Harry is primarily concerned with his own desires and needs. On meeting him, for instance, Linda remarks, "You're not like the rest of Gideon's friends. Most of them believe if you're not hard at work, then you're hard at sin." Harry represents a very different version of the past from Gideon: He is a trickster who has learned how to survive by taking advantage of people without their knowing it. Mindful of how society has necessitated that he live as only "half a man," Harry, like tricksters in many African-American tales, has sought to develop his skill at subverting the established social order.(6) Yet more than the clever characters in African-American tales who compete with those from outside their class (e.g., another species of animal, or a person of a superior social class or more privileged race), Harry personifies a desire for mastery over any other individual.(7) His unchecked desire for self-protection and self-aggrandizement separates him from African-American figures, even the preacher of Gideon's tale, whose trickery clearly serves the interests of a marginalized community. As John Roberts has asserted in discussing the bonds between the African-American trickster and the black community,
the morality that enslaved Africans associated with the animal trickster was based on the acceptance and recognition of the exploitive socio-economic relationship between slave and master in an illusory communal environment. In essence, enslaved Africans envisioned the trickster's actions as protecting [black] communal values not so much from behavior that threatened them from within as from physical and cultural annihilation from an external force. (45)
By contrast, according to Burnett, Harry is "a character that comes to steal your soul, and you have to out-trick him" (Guerrero 170). Harry recalls African tricksters who "create alliances, which they inevitably break, or [who] break longstanding ones in pursuit of their own apparent egocentric goals" (Roberts 27). Such egocentricity, when it appears in African-American tales, can be severely punished, because it endangers the integrity of the black community, just as Harry's actions threaten Gideon and Suzie's family.(8)
Although Harry often hides behind a facade of Southern graciousness, he also recalls the tradition of badmen, African-American outlaws, such as Stackolee and Railroad Bill, who resisted the exploitation that defines John Henry. Badmen emerged as African-American heroes in post-bellum folk expression, responding to the dominant culture's continuing denials of black autonomy. In defying the law, badmen sought to undercut a social system that suppressed or marginalized the self (Brearley 580). Moving within a homosocial world of often ruthless competition, badmen pursued desires for power and glory that most persons would never attempt. Harry's stories connect him to this tradition, for they are about personal adventures that revolve around murder. Harry embodies the danger, violence, and mobility of manhood, and these qualities quickly attract Babe Brother, who associates them with freedom.
Harry's appeal to Babe Brother is evident in an early sequence that alternates scenes of a church sermon and baptisms attended by Gideon, Suzie, Junior, and his family with scenes of Harry and Babe Brother playing cards in Gideon and Suzie's kitchen as Linda and Sonny look on. This arrangement of scenes offers an ironic commentary on Harry's status as interloper and upsetter of the status quo, for his transgressive, disruptive influence is juxtaposed with the Christ of Matthew 10:34-35, who threatens to turn family members against one another. In a scene intercut with shots of Babe Brother's obvious delight with Harry, the preacher invokes the Christ who asserts: "Think not that I am come to send peace on earth. I came not to send peace, but a sword. I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law." Telling a story from his violent past that seduces Babe Brother, Harry parallels the minister's baptism of a boy and girl in the church scenes. Yet whereas the church permits gender inclusiveness and hints at gender equality, at least among the young initiates, Harry seems intent on excluding Linda, or having Babe Brother exclude her, from their circle. After Harry seems to complete the story and confesses to keeping his knife open in his pocket, Babe Brother objects to Linda's picking a playing card from the deck, commenting, "You not in the game." The organization of the shots confirms her separation from Babe Brother: Babe Brother sits to the left of Harry, Linda to the right; whereas Babe Brother and Harry sit in regular chairs and frontally face the table, Linda is turned away from the table and perched on a high stool.
Harry attracts Babe Brother with demonstrations of phallic power - displaying a big knife and telling a story that obliquely refers to his willingness to use it. In the process, Harry alienates Linda, who quickly senses the homosocial nature of his experience. The images on Harry's playing cards - Adam and Eve's expulsion from paradise and Death standing with a Maiden - associate Harry with the tradition of blaming women for human fallibility and mortality. Whether confronted with bold women like Hattie and Linda or with the demure Suzie, Harry reveals a tendency to see women as objects that he can manipulate to get what he wants. In a later scene, for instance, Harry enthusiastically approves of a version of the blues "See See Rider" in which the speaker bemoans his female lover's affair with another man and promises to kill her for her betrayal, but lets the male lover escape without condemnation or punishment.(9) Inviting Babe Brother to join him on his rambles down South, Harry warns him:
You should never treat a woman as an equal. If you want to get your wife back, get another woman. M.C., you ever heard of a real man having one woman?... One woman put you out, you have to have another take you in. You don't drive around without a spare tire, do you? The more mules you hitch, the easier the plow.
Much of Harry's self-definition proceeds from being successful at manipulating women, which convinces him of his superiority. Yet such posturing in film usually registers a man's attempt to compensate for his own weakness (Silverman 46).
Certainly, as Babe Brother is increasingly drawn to Harry's model of masculinity, women and the domestic values associated with them become casualties to Babe Brother's fears and anxieties about his power in the world. Babe Brother sacrifices his relationship with Linda to secure a place among Harry's friends. And later Babe Brother stands to sacrifice Suzie in his competition with Junior, a competition that resonates with the biblical conflict between Cain and Abel. Coming after the scene in which Babe Brother decides to leave town with Harry, the fight sequence primarily reveals Babe Brother's and Junior's intense mutual resentment and underscores their widely differing values as men. Whereas Babe Brother is now intent on evading emotional commitments, Junior's life is defined by them. Like Suzie, who is also central to the sequence, Junior represents the importance of fulfilling domestic and familial responsibilities.(10) Babe Brother renounces these responsibilities by not heeding Suzie's advice that he think of family, by angrily denying any obligation to Gideon, by attacking Junior verbally and physically. And this attack results in the shedding of Suzie's blood, which signals an unconscious denial of her authority as giver and sustainer of life.
In alluding to Cain and Abel, the film parallels traditional folkloric uses of the Bible to comment on African-American social traditions.(11) Yet the film inverts the dynamics of the Bible's story once the fight begins, displacing Babe Brother, who resembles the envious Cain, from the film frame. The camera remains, for the most part, below Junior, capturing his aggression toward his brother. This set-up points to the corrupting force of Babe Brother's resentment, for Junior becomes infected with the spirit of anger, hatred, and violence that has recently guided Babe Brother. Although Junior has been hotheaded, like his father, in previous scenes, he has generally been able to restrain his anger, often as a result of Suzie's or Pat's interceding. In effect, Babe Brother has become like Harry, a catalyst for others' self-destruction, for Junior's struggle is clearly not only against Babe Brother, but also against Junior's own destructive instincts, which he is no longer willing to hold in check. Like Gideon, who is touched by the fires of hell in the opening dream sequence, Junior is tempted to condemn himself by unleashing a debilitating anger. And the consequence is Suzie's wound, for which either brother - or both - seems to be responsible, since the camera does not clarify who controls the knife when Suzie intervenes and is hurt. The film's ambiguous reshaping of the Cain and Abel story contrasts both with the biblical model and with Harry's, for Burnett's story ends with Junior and Babe Brother's mutual decision to take responsibility for Suzie in a way that reconnects them to each other and to the family as a whole. Thus the film ultimately moves beyond the fraternal division central to the biblical story; it also repudiates the spirit of fraternal connection that Harry endorses, a connection founded on women's subjection or exclusion.
The film stresses Harry's deficiencies not only through his dealings with women but also through his storytelling. Although his story of murder captivates Babe Brother, his tales are flawed because of their vagueness and inconsistencies. In the kitchen scene with Babe Brother, Harry slyly implies that he may have killed a man, Harker, without straightforwardly asserting it. He tells Babe Brother, "I don't know if I actually did what I did or if I got my life and story mixed in with other folks' stories, but I seem to recall I had to use my crab apple there on a boy from back home." When Babe Brother asks Harry if he has actually used the knife, Harry admits, "I don't know what happened to him in the dark. I know I protected myself and always will." Later, in speaking to Marsh, a fellow Southerner who suspects Harry was involved in Harker's and other associates' deaths, Harry refuses to link himself with them or to express regret. Unlike Gideon's stories, Harry's tales do not illuminate, but instead conceal, his ostensible subject. Yet the stories do expose his egotism: They mark him as a man willing to hurt his own friends and his own community both in the past and the present. Whereas the classic badman tends to fight against questionable authorities (white sheriffs and corrupt black leaders, for instance) who seek to oppress the black community (Roberts 197-98), Harry has no such scruples. When Marsh mentions that Harker's death nearly caused a race riot, Harry comments, "Strange as it may seem, it may have cleared the water. Sometimes the right actions comes from the wrong reason." Moreover, he tells Marsh that the lynching of a former friend, Chick, may have been opportune, possibly because Chick could no longer identify Harry as the murderer of another friend. Although Harry uses stories to create bonds with other men, including Gideon and their mutual Southern friends, as well as Babe Brother, the rampant self-interest that the stories betray oppose the concept of a fuller community. To Sleep with Anger stresses the need to use stories quite differently - to create substantive bonds between community members, not fantastical ones dependent on a presumption of male mastery.
As griot or communal storyteller, Gideon embodies the generative powers of vernacular expression: Through his tales, he represents how an artist can contribute to the welfare of society. As one who is embedded in community, Gideon uses stories both to critique aspects of society and to further the goal of human connectedness. His story about gossiping humorously reveals negative forces in society - disguised self-interest, competition, hypocrisy - but in acknowledging these forces, the story also is designed to educate listeners about how to guard against them. Gideon's story acknowledges a community of creative, critical thinkers and empowers them through encouraged participation, as with Suzie and Sonny. Harry's storytelling, which is more akin to boasting and more committed to obfuscation, cannot fulfill these functions of community building. His stories not only recount splits in the community but also encourage hostility and divisiveness in his audience within the film. In incorporating Gideon's storytelling, by contrast, the film points to a model of folklore that it emulates, one that fosters personal enlightenment and communal responsibility.
Babe Brother ultimately embraces and comes to symbolize these values, choosing to eschew the destructive pursuits that Harry celebrates and that have apparently cut Harry off from the possibility of family. Harry has foregone or lost the opportunity to be a responsive, constructive father. In a scene with Gideon, he mentions that his sons are dead; in other scenes, he tries to place a photograph of one child with Suzie's photo collection of babies she has helped to deliver. In contrast to Harry, Babe Brother chooses to return to family in part because of his sense of obligation to his son. In a scene late in the film in which he walks through the woods with Harry, Babe Brother hears his distant son's call, just as he comes across a dead hawk, a symbol of the failure of the predatory life that Harry represents. Sonny's call for Babe Brother comes from within the realm of Junior, Pat, Rhonda, and Linda's union as family. After Babe Brother realizes the stakes of his decision to attach himself to Harry, he, too, enters this union.
The film ultimately stresses a vision of masculinity and family that depends on balancing conservative values such as self-restraint with a commitment to self-expression and self-fulfillment within the realm of home and family. The many images of homing pigeons reinforce this message. Throughout To Sleep with Anger, shots of pigeons are intercut with the family's domestic drama. The birds obviously embody freedom, because they are shown in flight. Yet the pigeons' freedom is curtailed or circumscribed by their domestication. Similarly, Samuel learns to embrace a freedom linked to the inevitable return home, to discipline, to constraints.
A scene late in the film underscores Babe Brother's newfound commitment to family, delineating a marital union antithetical to the exploitation and competition that Harry fosters. The scene opens with a shot of Junior's family sharing a sofa in Suzie and Gideon's living room, then moves to take in the chastened Babe Brother's reconnection to Linda and Sonny. The intimacy of the camera set-up, which includes Babe and Linda, with Sonny in the background between them, indicates this small family's new closeness. based on mutual guidance, acceptance, and respect, Babe Brother and Linda's marriage constitutes a new version of what Gideon and Suzie have maintained. The camera set-up, with Babe Brother positioned above Linda in the frame, demonstrates not a hierarchy in the relationship but rather the ambiguities of a reciprocal partnership. Although the camera remains above Linda in the scene, a positioning that often diminishes an actor's presence, the tension between this positioning and her bold actions and reassuring words is evident. Her status as nurturer and guide is central.
As the scene progresses, Babe Brother tells the story of his attraction to Harry, for the first time reflecting thoughtfully on his situation, rather than using stories to blame others for his dissatisfaction.(12) As she listens, Linda intently plucks hairs from his chest, periodically repeating Babe Brother's words. Although the hair-plucking might signify his emasculation, resonating with the biblical story of Samson and Delilah, Linda's action actually signifies Babe Brother's domestication after his years of careerism and his time under Harry's spell. The film does not treat this taming as a lessening, for the hair-plucking accompanies Linda's re-naming of Samuel. Known throughout the film as "Baby Brother," which signals his immaturity, he finally receives a name, "Samuel," associated with the kind of biblical authority his father summons. Like the Old Testament Gideon, Samuel refers to one of the last judges of Israel, leaders who upheld God's law in serving their subjects. Presumably, however, Babe Brother's authority will be shared, for, like Suzie, Linda has retained her economic parity, her ability to influence her husband, and her personal vision of the world.
In reuniting the family and endowing Babe Brother with new wisdom and authority, To Sleep with Anger addresses and resolves the common dilemma of black men's difficulty finding viable, satisfying positions in American society.(13) The film proposes that men in younger generations must turn to the foundations of family and community that have held in the past. At the very least Gideon's (and Suzie's) model of familial support can partly allay some of the pressures African Americans face in relation to the dominant culture, pressures to assimilate, to compete, and to over-value material goods. Drawing on the competing folk legends that inform Harry's and Gideon's characters, Burnett uses his film to continue a black vernacular tradition of evaluating masculine heroism. As folklorist John Roberts has argued, folk stories and songs have offered functional and dysfunctional models of behavior for African Americans since the era of slavery (37-38). For Burnett, certainly, such models carry rich cinematic possibilities, because they can be adapted to resonate with contemporary issues and problems, such as black masculine alienation. As Burnett has said, folklore has constituted "an important cultural necessity that not only provided humour but was a source of symbolic knowledge that allowed one to comprehend life" (Burnett 225). In depicting Babe Brother's dilemma, To Sleep with Anger calls on its viewers to continue to embrace folklore's methods and to plumb its rich sources of knowledge.
1. For a discussion of the uses of folklore in African film, see Diawara.
2. For a discussion of African-American tricksters and badmen, see Levine and Roberts.
3. After To Sleep with Anger failed to reach a sizeable African-American audience, Burnett turned to more accessible treatments of the African-American experience, but they also owe much to vernacular traditions. The Glass Shield, a melodrama exposing the racism within a police department, presents a naive protagonist akin to those in some folk tales. Nightjohn, produced for the Disney Channel, is a rich story set during the era of slavery about the possibilities and perils in an African-American girl's attaining literacy. See Guerrero 172-73 for a discussion of the difficulties To Sleep with Anger had reaching a black audience.
4. A scene between Gideon and Harry that takes place along a railroad registers this exploitation. As the two men talk about the need for family discipline, they stop and look back on the rails, apparently seeing into their past. Suddenly, black laborers hammering stakes magically appear in the background. The image registers a memory that Harry and Gideon share, one of hard, possibly backbreaking, labor. As John Henry, Gideon is more closely associated with this work, but both men have been shaped by social expectations that define African-American men as common laborers.
5. See, for instance, the version of the song that appears in the new Norton Anthology of African-American Literature, which includes the stanza: "One day his captain told him [John Henry], / How he had bet a man / That John Henry would beat his steam-drill down, / Cause John Henry was the best in the land, / John Henry was the best in the land" (45). Of course, such a scenario may have proved significant for many African Americans who heard this version. As Dundes has remarked, "To the extent that the song or legend encapsulates the evils of exploitation, it may have special appeal for people who have themselves had personal experience with such exploitation" (562).
6. This tendency is characteristic of African and African-American tricksters, as well as those from other cultures. See Pelton for a discussion of the African trickster.
7. Examples of such inter-class competitions include those between the slave John and "Massa," as well as those between Anansi the spider and Brother Anteater, or Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox. See Hurston (75-76) for the story of an enslaved man, John, who tricks his master into a confrontation with a bear. See Abrahams (197-99) for the story of an ant that succeeds where an anteater fails.
8. Harry was inspired by tales Burnett's grandmother told him in Mississippi (Guerrero 170). See Roberts for a discussion of animal tales featuring a "trickster [who] loses the battle of wits when he attempts to deceive other animals who by virtue of their natural relationship to each other should be allies" (46). Also, for a discussion of African Americans' disapproval of intra-communal trickery, see Roberts 199.
9. Although he has been wronged by See See Rider, the speaker seems to idolize him:
See See Rider, see what you have done, Lord, Lord, Lord, See See Rider, yeah, see what you have done, Stole my girl. Now that man's done gone.
I'm gonna buy me a pistol Just as long as I am tall. Lord, buy me a pistol Just as long as I am tall. Shoot that girl, get that Cannonball.
10. The film signals Junior's sense of responsibility by presenting him as ordinary and by contrasting his plainness with Babe Brother's materialism. Whereas Babe Brother dons stylish, elegant designer clothing, Junior wears unremarkable clothes that seem to have been selected for their practicality. Whereas Babe Brother drives a small luxury sedan, Junior has an old, large, domestic model.
11. The film relies on biblical references from the beginning, including character names, such as Gideon and Samuel, and images of apples as symbols of forbidden knowledge consumed by Sonny and Harry.
12. Early in To Sleep with Anger, Babe Brother talks with Linda about his youth in a way that indicates he has told the same story before. He recalls that his grandmother has exploited his ability to do physical labor and describes his parents as farm animals who thrive on such demanding work.
13. See Close for a discussion of middle-class African Americans' difficulty in realizing the American Dream.
Abrahams, Roger, ed. Afro-American Folk Tales: Stories from Black Traditions in the New World. New York: Pantheon, 1985.
Bambara, Toni Cade. "Reading the Signs, Empowering the Eye: Daughters of the Dust and the Black Independent Cinema Movement." Black American Cinema. Ed. Manthia Diawara. New York: Routledge, 1993. 118-44.
Ben-Amos, Dan. "Toward[s] a Definition of Folklore in Context." Journal of American Folklore 84 (Jan.-Mar. 1971): 3-15.
Bobo, Jacqueline. Black Women as Cultural Readers. New York: Columbia UP, 1995.
Brearley, H. C. "Ba-ad Nigger." Dundes 578-85.
Burnett, Charles. "Inner City Blues." Pines and Willemen 223-26.
Close, Ellis. The Rage of the Privileged Class. New York: Harper, 1995.
Davis, Gerald. "I Got the Word in Me and I Can Sing It, You Know": A Study of the Performed African-American Sermon. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1987.
Diawara, Manthia. "Oral Literature and African Film: Narratology in Wend Kuuni." Pines and Willemen 199-211.
Dundes, Alan, ed. Mother Wit from the Laughing Barrel: Readings in the Interpretation of Afro-American Folklore. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1973.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., and Nellie McKay, eds. The Norton Anthology of African-American Literature. New York: Norton, 1997.
Guerrero, Ed. Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1993.
Hozic, Aida. "The House I Live In: An Interview with Charles Burnett." Callaloo 17 (1994): 471-91.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Mules and Men. 1935. Folklore, Memoirs, and Other Writings. Ed. Cheryl Wall. New York: Library of America, 1995.
Jones, Jacquie. "The Black South in Contemporary Film." African American Review 27 (1993): 19-24.
Levine, Lawrence. Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Thought From Slavery to Freedom. New York: Oxford UP, 1977.
Odum, Howard, and Guy Johnson. Negro Workaday Songs. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1926.
Pelton, Robert D. The Trickster in West Africa: A Study of Mythic Irony and Sacred Delight. Berkeley: U of California P, 1980.
Pines, Jim, and Paul Willemen, eds. Questions of Third Cinema. London: British Film Institute, 1989.
Roberts, John. From Trickster to Badman: The Black Folk Hero in Slavery and Freedom. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1989.
Silverman, Kaja. Male Subjectivity at the Margins. New York: Routledge: 1992.
Burnett, Charles. To Sleep with Anger. With Danny Glover, Richard Brooks, Paul Butler, Mary Alice, and Sheryl Lee Ralph. SVS, 1990.
Karen Chandler is Assistant Professor of African-American and American Literature at the University of Louisville. This essay is part of a larger project, in which Professor Chandler examines intersections between the African-American vernacular and contemporary film.
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1999|
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