(director: Martin Ritt; screenwriters: from the book by William H. Armstrong/Lonne Elder III; cinematographer: John A. Alonzo; editor: Sid Levin; music: Taj Mahal; cast: Cicely Tyson (Rebecca Morgan), Paul Winfield (Nathan Lee Morgan), Kevin Hooks (David Lee Morgan), Carmen Mathews (Mrs. Boatwright), Taj Mahal (Ike), James Best (Sheriff Young), Janet MacLachlan (Camille Johnson), Ted Airhart (Parkins), Eric Hooks (Earl Morgan), Yvonne Jarrell (Josie Mae Morgan), Sylvia Kuumba Williams (Harriet); Runtime: 105; MPAA Rating: G; producer: Robert B. Radnitz; 20th Century Fox; 1972)

“A very fine unpretentious, heartwarming and uplifting family drama about a Deep South black sharecropper family trying to survive during the Depression.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A very fine unpretentious, heartwarming and uplifting family drama about a Deep South black sharecropper family trying to survive during the Depression. It’s based on the Newberry Medal Award winning novel by black author William H. Armstrong and written by Oscar nominated black playwright screenwriter Lonne Elder III. It’s directed sympathetically by the white Martin Ritt (“Hud”), who was blacklisted in the 1950s as a Communist. The title is taken from the family’s faithful hunting dog Sounder. There are some terriffic moving scenes between father and son. It’s also worth noting that in a rare historical moment both African-American costars, Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield, were deservedly nominated for Oscars.

The Morgans, a loving African-American family of three young children, are trying to get enough food to eat in 1933 in rural Louisiana, when the proud and kindly father Nathan Lee (Paul Winfield) gets arrested on a petty theft charge for stealing some food and is given a one year prison sentence in a faraway labor camp. After some months the saintly wife, Rebecca (Cicely Tyson), takes care of the sharecropping duties with her young ones and when there’s a lull in work sends the reliable oldest son David (Kevin Hooks), who is about 11 years old, with Sounder, to visit his father at the camp. Unable to see his dad, the trip nevertheless becomes a fruitful coming-of-age-experience as he’s befriended by dedicated black schoolteacher Camille Johnson (Janet MacLachlan), teaching in a segregated school, who lets him stay in her house and gives him books by black authors to read about black history and black pride. When the father is released from prison, suffering a gimpy leg, he realizes David’s way out of their tragic circumstances is through education. He therefore allows David to stay with the faraway schoolteacher while school is in session.

It came out during a time when “Blaxploitation” films like Shaft (1971) and Superfly (1972) were in vogue, and offered a sharp contrast in attitude and theme. It’s an important film because of the positive ways the black were portrayed on the screen (not often done in Hollywood), though it lacked excitement and all the nobility had a sappy ring to it. The determined characters facing ruin show an urgency to overcome their forced life of poverty but without any visible anger (which leaves it open for questioning as maybe, merely, liberal propaganda). That anger lies under the surface, but the characters never seemed fully developed. Though there’s no condescension, they are nevertheless reduced to being simplistic and crowd-pleasing Hollywood characters. I think what prevents the film from sinking is what black film historian Don Bogle noted in his comments about the superbly moving performances by the costars–they didn’t have to play black because they already know they are black.

Sounder was filmed on location in St. Helena Parish and East Feliciana Parish in Louisiana, giving it an authentic feel.