Sounder – A Simple Story About Family, A Complex Story About Humanity

To this point here at Movie Treasures Rediscovered we’ve written about pictures from a wide range of styles. We’ve looked at comedies and classics as well as westerns and films with a twist, all with the intent of examining several different genres of cinema to suggest for a rediscovery. But with today’s submission we’ll be offering what we consider to be a true cinematic masterpiece which we are sincerely hoping you will give a chance. Today we’ll be taking another look at the 1972 Martin Ritt film Sounder.

1972 was a great year for cinema. For proof look no further than the Martin Ritt film Sounder starring Cicely Tyson, Paul Winfield and Kevin Hooks.

When the Oscar nominated movies for Best Picture in 1972 were announced, the list included several films that are still considered classics. The Godfather, Cabaret and Deliverance led the nominees with The Godfather eventually walking away with Best Picture. But the list also included a film that is not as highly regarded as the above three and that’s a downright shame. Sounder is every bit as deserving of “beloved” status as it packs a deeply emotional punch and contains some truly magnificent performances.

The film was adapted from the Award winning children’s book by William H. Armstrong. Barely eight chapters long, some of the film’s most authentic and emotional moments were added as part of the adaptation from the book by screenwriter Lonne Elder III, himself nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay in 1972. Mr. Elder added depth and personality to the original story with names and details about each of the people depicted. Additionally, he added characters that enhanced the message of the story in a way that makes Sounder unforgettable.

At its heart, Sounder is about a family. The Mother, Father and three children scratch out an existence as sharecroppers in depression era Louisiana.

Sounder accurately depicts an African-American family in the midst of poverty and deprivation yet thoroughly retaining their humanity and dignity. Set in Louisiana at the height of The Great Depression, the Morgan family (barely) survive as sharecroppers on the property of a wealthy white businessman. To be a sharecropper, farming families would literally rent the land on which they farmed by “sharing” the crop with the property owner as payment. It was a rough, difficult life and Sounder captures the hard reality of this existence with absolute authenticity. The dust, the flies, the sweat – ALL of the genuine hardships of this kind of life are here and bring a realism that offer the perfect backdrop to this story.

And what of the title Sounder? Why he’s the family dog of course. In fact, as a hound dog, Sounder is an important member of the family who earns his keep by helping the family put food on the table as they hunt Raccoons for their family meals. That’s where the story begins and how we are led to the central conflict of the plot. What would any Father do when his family is starving? This question is examined as the film begins and the consequences of the actions of Father provide the backdrop as the oldest son – David Lee – is forced to quickly come of age.

Sounder is the family hound dog who earns his keep helping the family put food on the table.

Now, as with previous recommendations for rediscovery, this essay isn’t intended to be a review of the movie but rather a suggestion for readers to take a look at a past film that they may have missed or that might have fallen by the wayside. And although any review of this film would hold several elements of the picture up for praise, I am going to condense my endorsement of Sounder down to Five Reasons

1. Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield were both nominated for Oscars as Best Actress and Best Actor respectively for good reason

In Sounder, Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield are Rebecca and Nathan Lee. Their performances are wholly convincing as the Mother and Father of three children trying to make a life for their family as best they can. Both were nominated for their performances and any honest assessment of the film will give the viewer a full understanding as to why.

As Rebecca and Nathan Lee, both Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield give Oscar nominated performances that are as powerful as they are memorable.

As Nathan Lee, Paul Winfield is the picture of a hard working, loving Father who wants to take care of his family. Though the depth of the character is found in moments where he is teaching his son David Lee, the sublime aspects of the performance shine through in both spoken and unspoken moments between he and his wife Rebecca. When he tells her, “I did what I had to do”, the viewer truly understands that this is what Nathan Lee honestly believes regardless of the consequences.

As Rebecca, Cicely Tyson is tough, sweet, trusting, and in love with her whole heart. Like Nathan Lee, she will do what she has to do and her bravery and grit in the face of trial and sorrow give the movie its humanity. When she is questioned by the white landowner about farming the land in Nathan Lee’s absence, we see a fire rising up in Rebecca’s spirit and we know, we just know, that hers is a determination that cannot be conquered. Yet when Nathan Lee returns, she portrays a sweetness that is as delightful as it is inspiring. More on the magnificent “Homecoming” scene later.

By the way, it is also of interesting note that the 1972 Oscars featured the nomination of Diana Ross for her performance in Lady Sings The Blues. Together with Cicely Tyson’s nomination for Sounder, this marked the first time that two Black female artists were nominated for Best Actress in the same year. Sadly, it is also the only time that this has ever happened.

As Rebecca, Cicely Tyson gives a magnificent, Award worthy performance in Sounder.

2. The subtlety of the racism depicted in the film gives the story a stark honesty

As African-American sharecroppers in the Depression era south, it isn’t surprising that the story in Sounder depicts acts of racism towards the family. But the subtlety of the portrayal of these actions is what gives the film its unforgettable strength. There are no white-hooded villains shouting racist taunts and there isn’t even a mention of Jim Crowe laws and the reality of segregated life for this farming family.

No, we get to see the racism in a more personal way such as when Rebecca goes to see the Sheriff about visiting Nathan in prison and she’s turned away because the Sheriff has to follow “Rules”. Or in the tone and language of the way the Black characters are talked down to at every turn and their silent acceptance of this treatment because of the danger there would be to respond to such abuse. But for me the most startling moment was when David Lee travels to the work camp in which he thinks his Father is imprisoned. As he visually searches each truck headed out of camp to the work fields, every man – every single one – is Black.

Sounder isn’t about racism on its face but below the surface it is all about racism.

Sounder isn’t about racism on its face but below the surface it is all about racism.”

3. There is no “White Savior”, but there is a Black role model

Unfortunately, oftentimes in films that include historical depictions of race there is a character that has come to be known as the “White Savior”. This happens when a white character is depicted as being responsible for helping Black characters overcome. In Sounder, the character of Mrs. Boatwright could have easily turned into one such character. But the story resisted such an easy caricature and instead sees the boy David Lee receive guidance from a Black teacher who introduces him to his historical legacy by acquainting him with historical Black figures.

It’s a moment that resonates deeply and one that rings even more true when David Lee’s somewhat uneducated Father insists that David Lee attend school. Near the end of the film, Nathan Lee tells his son, “I want you to beat the life they got laid out for you in this valley….please don’t get too used to this place. I’m gonna love you wherever you is.”

The character of David’s teacher Camille is played by Janet MacLachlan in Sounder. She gives David Lee a connection to his historical legacy.

4. This is a film about joy and love

When Nathan Lee laughs, he does it with his whole body. When he plays baseball, he does it with all his heart. When he works, it’s with all his might. When Rebecca and Nathan Lee are together, they are passionately in love. When Rebecca is with her children, her care for them is palpable. These are people who embrace the joyful things of life even in the midst of their hardships. When challenges arise, they face them. When Sounder is lost, they have quiet faith he will return. Their upbeat optimism is a beautiful thing to watch even though many, in the same circumstances, would give in to sorrow and despair.

Their outlook is reflected in their son David Lee as this is a story of his coming of age. We see the characteristics of them in David Lee as he sets out to seek a better life than the one his parents were given. The final line of the film is a magnificent look at holding on to our past while seeking a better future. I won’t quote it here because I want you to experience it in the moment when you see the film. But it does give the movie its final, best ingredient – which is hope.

The cast of Sounder was ably led by 14 year old Kevin Hooks in his film debut. He went on to a moderately successful career on screen and a great career as a film producer.

5. The “Homecoming” scene

There are several very lovely moments in Sounder. The scene by the water between Father and Son. The scene in school when David Lee defends his classmate. The scene when Rebecca and Nathan Lee anxiously look silently at one another as they send the children to bed, as well as several more. But the standout scene to me is the one affectionately referred to as “The Homecoming Scene”.

In the film, Father Nathan Lee has been away for a long time. In his absence, Mother Rebecca has had to make do as best she could all the while longing for Nathan Lee’s return. In this memorable scene, Nathan Lee approaches his home from a distance and Rebecca sees him while far off. The sheer ecstasy of the moment is acted by Cicely Tyson with outright perfection. I could watch it again and again and still be moved by it every time. Give it a watch and you’ll see what I mean.

“The Homecoming Scene” in Sounder as played by Cicely Tyson has a lasting effect on all who experience it.

I believe Sounder is the exact kind of movie that we were referring to when we founded Movie Treasures Rediscovered. One which is no longer watched with regularity but absolutely deserves to be. If it’s a film you’ve seen before, chances are it has been a while since you last watched it. And if you’ve never seen it, I give it my most ardent endorsement for your viewing pleasure. It is a truly special film worthy of high acclaim.

⭐ For more information on where to Buy, Rent, or Stream Sounder, click here for the Sounder JustWatch page.

The official theatrical trailer for the 1972 film Sounder directed by Martin Ritt and starring Cicely Tyson, Paul Winfield and Kevin Hooks.

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