As part of Binghamton University’s most extensive display of African American artwork in the history of its art museum, Harpur Cinema screened Charles Burnett’s “To Sleep with Anger” on Friday and Sunday.
The event paired the film with the ambiance of “not but nothing other: African-American Portrayals, 1930s to Today,” which showcases a wide range of pieces in different artistic mediums, highlighting topics of African American media representation and selfhood.
Before “To Sleep with Anger” was played, Chantal Rodais, event coordinator and a lecturer of cinema, discussed its historical context and impact on the film industry. Although the film was a low-budget production, Burnett was able to create a movie that was unconventional and pioneering for its time. Through the effusive praise of movie critics, Burnett’s career catapulted and he produced more iconic motion pictures that garnered him prestigious awards for his directing prowess.
In her speech, Rodais said the film challenged African American stereotypes in media.
“Moving away from Hollywood’s treatment of African American characters, Burnett offers a radically different film form that portrays with pointed insight and from a place of intimate knowledge, the complexities of a Black middle-class family and neighborhood,” Rodais said. “He counters the reductive and stereotypical images of blackness produced in Hollywood with his fluid tonal shifts, from drama to comedy, his rich texture of references to black folklore and oral storytelling traditions of the old South and his use of music that uniquely contributes to the fabric of his film work.”
The movie depicts an African American family that leaves behind its Southern roots and traditions to live in a predominantly white Los Angeles community. Harry, an old, charismatic friend, suddenly shows up on their doorstep and reminds them of their past, the good and the bad. He also brings forth a deviant, menacing energy that starts to rip the family apart, portrayed through backwoods mysticism and spiritual folklore. The patriarch, Gideon, and his family go to church and have all the comforts of modern life. However, they still raise chickens in the backyard and believe in superstitions that are not linked to their current church. Harry represents the soul and the traditions the family have left behind, yet strangely cling to.
Claire Kovacs, curator of collections and exhibitions at the BU Art Museum, said the content of the film perfectly aligns with the exhibition.
“Since the art exhibition displays a vast array of African American artwork ranging from the Harlem Renaissance to modern times, we thought of hosting screenings to the general public that are in conjunction to its themes,” Kovacs said. “The movie does a great job of opening up conversations and furthering the exhibition’s mission in representing people of color and their artistic legacies.”
Audience members that were at the screening presented diverse backgrounds and ages. There were faculty, students and locals alike that exited the event with different interpretations. Olivia Holmes, a professor of English at BU, said the film presented a common dichotomy of morality and corruption.
“It was almost like an apocalyptic playing out of good versus evil,” Holmes said. “The youngest son who leaves his family and comes back at the end, tells his wife that there was something fighting for his soul. I was thinking about the thing that you see in the cartoons where you have an angel or devil fighting for the soul. I thought that the film was really beautiful and masterfully crafted.”