Burnett--Telling a Story on a Shoestring


During the first 15 minutes or so of Charles Burnett’s “To Sleep With Anger,” you may begin to wonder why so many people went to so much trouble for so little money to create what appears to be a socially scaled-down version of “The Cosby Show.”

For sure, a lot of talented people worked on the cheap to get the project done. Burnett, the gifted black writer and director, struggled close to bankruptcy for much of the four years it took to make “To Sleep With Anger,” and among the actors working for scale was Danny Glover, whose $10,000 fee for six weeks work was a mere fraction of the millions he was paid for his last film, “Lethal Weapon II.”

Even gangs that normally prowl 20th Street in the South-Central Los Angeles neighborhood where the film was set agreed to a truce during filming in the summer of 1989.


All this for a Cosby clone? Far from it. The moment that Glover’s character, Harry Mention, appears in the story--an old friend from the South who arrives on a family’s doorstep with a box of belongings and a century’s worth of superstitions--it’s clear “To Sleep With Anger” is something unique.

Although the title is derived from the biblical admonition against going to bed angry, the movie is a complex and poetic look at what could happen to a family when an outsider meddles with relationships, loyalties and traditions, already brought close to the breaking point by the stress of everyday living. Mention is a paradigm of the trickster, the archetypal smiling demon who is part of the folklore of many cultures, including that of black Americans.

“I came from a rich heritage and we lived in a neighborhood where Southern traditions were kept,” says the 46-year-old Burnett, who was born in Vicksburg, Miss., but moved to Watts as a child. “When people gathered in the evening or on weekends, they used to tell stories to provide a sense of culture. Some of those stories were of the trickster who, during slavery, was more of a heroic figure.”

Burnett says “To Sleep With Anger” is a deliberate effort to re-create a sense of that black cultural history: “I didn’t appreciate the (storytelling) tradition until it disappeared. I had a sense of who I was because of that experience. . . . This film was an attempt to go back and deal with the past. To tell a story about a story.”

Adds Danny Glover: “I think there is a little of Harry in all of us. We’re constantly in conflict between the good side and the other. Harry’s involvement with the dark side is not that uncommon.”

Originally developed as a project for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, “To Sleep With Anger” was derailed by editorial demands. Burnett says he did odd jobs to stay afloat, but was still close to bankruptcy when he got a call “out of the blue” from the MacArthur Foundation informing him that he had been chosen for one of its “genius” grants--a stipend of $275,000 awarded on the basis of his earlier work on such films as 1981’s “Killer of Sheep” and 1984’s “My Brother’s Wedding.”


Burnett says he immediately moved his family from a small studio apartment into a house and bought medical insurance.

“When you have kids, that’s real important,” he says. “If you have a 2 1/2-year-old who gets sick at night, an emergency room has no sympathies. If you don’t have cash, credit or insurance, you’re out.”

For Burnett, nothing is simple, or quick. Even getting his college education--he has BA and MFA degrees from UCLA--was a decade-long project, deliberately.

“I was finally asked to graduate rather than take up room needed for other students,” he says with a laugh. “There wasn’t the independent filmmaking that there is today, and I would take Russian and Italian just to stay in school. There were a lot of us doing the same, and they were glad to get rid of us.”

After leaving school, Burnett acted as a sort of jack-of-all-movie-trades, writing, directing, reading scripts and making several low-budget films. He won the Berlin International Film Festival’s critics’ prize and Park City, Utah’s, U.S. Film Festival’s first prize for “Killer of Sheep,” and received a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, an NEA grant and a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship along the way.

Many characters and tales recalled from those long-ago days in Watts are amalgamated into “To Sleep With Anger.” As a child, he raised chickens and pigeons and played the trumpet. Chickens and pigeons appear in his film, as does a child blowing a raucous trumpet (portrayed by Burnett’s older son, Steven).


The entire production, in fact, has a home-grown quality demanded by its tiny, $1.4-million budget (his wife, Gaye Shannon-Burnett, designed the costumes). Glover, one of the film’s executive producers, admits, “Basically I was instrumental in getting the film funded--because of my involvement.”

Glover and Burnett say they wish there had been more money for additional production refinements, but Glover believes the tight budget was largely responsible for the film’s quality.

“We put in late hours and were limited to two or three takes (of a scene). Maybe the technical things we couldn’t afford didn’t get in the way and we had to rely on the performances. . . .” Obviously, no corners were cut in the casting, which included such actors as Paul Butler, Mary Alice, Richard Brooks, Carl Lumley, Vonetta McGee and Sheryl Lee Ralph.

Both also recall the making of the film not only as successful moviemaking, but as an extremely positive social experience. Glover, currently on tour talking about the making of the movie, says: “The role the community played in this was unlike any other project I have been involved with. Kids in the neighborhood hung around and we took two vanloads to a black rodeo. The last day, I cooked a big pot of gumbo and we invited the community. Every single cast and crew member extended themselves with open arms.

“Maybe,” Glover says hopefully, “some young kid watching might think, ‘I want to get involved in making films. My community has encouraged me to dream. . . .”

Burnett, remembering the genesis of his film, adds: “That would make the struggle all worthwhile.”