Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: February is Black History Month, so we’re looking back on great performances by Black actors that the Academy Awards ignored.
Danny Glover, when he makes his entrance as Harry Mention in Charles Burnett’s To Sleep With Anger, hat in hand, looks exactly like a visitor from the past. But which past, and whose? For Gideon (Paul Butler) and Suzie (Mary Alice), a middle-aged couple in Los Angeles, he is an old friend from back home, somewhere South and rural, who has reappeared after 30 years. His clothes are old-fashioned; he insists on sleeping on the floor. He becomes a houseguest, and out of his increasingly sinister presence come aphorisms, country remedies, corn liquor, cards, mysterious ailments.
If this is magical realism, then it’s a uniquely American variety that remains open to interpretation. Some aspects of it are biblical: The movie opens with a prophetic dream, and there is an undeniable Old Testament element to the discord that Harry appears to sow between Gideon and Suzie’s two grown sons, Junior (Carl Lumbly) and Babe Brother (Richard Brooks). But it’s just as steeped in the folklore of tricksters, charms, and brooms. One way of reading Harry Mention is that he is a ghost of the Great Migration, or a supernatural entity who enchants Gideon, Suzie, and most of their friends and neighbors with nostalgia for the way things were.
Burnett is often described as a filmmaker of the African American experience. This is unquestionably the chief subject of his staggered career, and it makes movies like To Sleep With Anger fertile ground for extended academic analysis. What is harder to untangle is the way his most vivid films go beyond the text-making activity of representing Black lives in drama: Flouting convention, they create genres that didn’t previously exist. To Sleep With Anger, which ranks near the top of his body of work, alongside shoestring-budget debut Killer Of Sheep, evades every form of categorization. It feels, at various times, like a domestic drama, a farce, a parable, and the opening act of a horror film.
The effect is almost literary, and as multivalent as the aura that surrounds Harry. As much as the film is uniquely a Burnett creation, it’s hard to imagine it working without Glover’s strange, magnetic turn. The star was only in his early 40s when he made the film; he adopts a stiff posture, an exaggerated rasp, and a twinkle that is ingratiating, anachronistic, and more than a little creepy. Such central performances are often said to anchor a film. Glover’s keeps it in a state of perpetual ambiguity.