After achieving wealth and fame in the second half of the 1980s from the Lethal Weapon series, actor Danny Glover produced and starred in a film by a little-known black American director, Charles Burnett. The film is called To Sleep With Anger. And what makes it the greatest black American film in the history of cinema (and, in the wider context of global black cinema, it's second only to Djibril Diop Mambéty's Hyenas) is, among several things, that it's a black film about not being black.
This concept might be hard to understand for some white readers. But it goes something like this: White filmmakers make movies with no idea or consideration of the public fact that their characters are white (A Star Is Born, Vice, The Favourite, and so on). There are no white people in their plots. The characters do not feel themselves to be white. They are in a drama. But if one looks at all of the black films (or films with black themes) in this year's Oscars, for example, all the blacks in those works know they are black. Black Panther—black superheroes. Green Book—black pianist. BlacKkKlansman—black detective. But do blacks always think of themselves as black? No. They do not. It is mostly a public identification (and representation), rarely a private one. But in, say, BlacKkKlansman there is not one private moment when the main character is not black. It's eating him all of the time. Who is this detective? We imagine he does not dream of sheep, but of black sheep.
The only film I've ever watched that completely expressed a condition that I call black non-blackness is To Sleep With Anger.
The film is based on a Charles Burnett script that rivals the poetry and cultural richness of an August Wilson play. And it's perfectly cast. The star, Glover, is mesmerizing. He, as Harry, enters the home of a middle-class family that's going through a standard family crisis. The eldest brother is at war with the youngest brother. Their father (Paul Butler) sides with the older brother and thinks his younger son is a great waste of time; the mother, played by the ethereal Mary Alice, is doing her best to keep things together and provide room for her younger son to grow. Harry arrives at their doorstep. He is in the middle of a trip to the Bay Area and needs a place to stay. He is friends with the father and mother (who are grandparents). He and the couple share the old Southern ways and days. Then, step by step, Harry begins to make the family's crisis worse. Before he arrived, it was just going to go on and on. After he enters and settles in the home, he recognizes the bad situation and decides to bring it to a conclusion that's favorable to him.
The only time race is mentioned in this film is at the very end, and in a very strange, if not morbid context. Racism is, after all, a kind of death.
I will present this film this Friday, Feb 15 at the Northwest Film Forum during its run, which begins on Feb 13 and ends on Feb 16. Do not miss the opportunity to watch the greatest black American film ever made on the big screen.