Academic journal article African American Review

Folk Culture and Masculine Identity Charles Burnett's 'To Sleep with Anger.'

Academic journal article African American Review

Folk Culture and Masculine Identity Charles Burnett's 'To Sleep with Anger.'

Article excerpt

A major concern of story-telling should be restoring values, reversing the erosion of all those things that made a better life. (Burnett, "Inner City Blues" 224)

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. …

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