by Sam Juliano
William H. Armstrong’s Sounder won the 1970 Newbery Medal and was in short order adapted for the screen. The story focused on African-American sharecroppers living and working in 1933 Louisiana at the height of the Great Depression, and was helmed by the former blacklisted director Martin Ritt, whose specialty was intimate, homespun southern dramas, of which Hud (1963) was the most celebrated. Though there are some significant differences between the novel and the film, most of what is presented on screen is faithful to the source material.
The Morgans – Nathan, Rebecca and the children David Lee, Earl and Josie May are barely scraping by as sharecroppers for an uncompromising store owner, Mr. Perkins, who also owns the shanty and the land they inhabit. As the film’s credits unfold, the father and oldest son hunt for coon. The motivation isn’t recreational indulgence, but to have that rarest of commodities – meat on the table. After a chase through the woods, assisted by the family’s beloved mixed breed coon hound, Sounder. The father misses his target, but comes home to an understanding wife who still ladles out soup, shrugging off yet another episode of hunting futility. Nathan is bitter that the family’s rigorous labor is accomplished solely to make the smug Perkins richer, while they all flirt with starvation. The next morning Rebecca finds a ham and some sausage in the kitchen, which she promptly prepares, asking no questions. The origin of the culinary windfall is painfully clear, but the delighted family indulge. Rebecca asks David where he was the previous night, and the father, in the tradition of Jean Valjean answers “I did what I had to do.”
David attends school, and is relegated to the back of the classroom with other black children. He later brings his siblings along for a visit to the kindly Mrs. Rita Boatwright, a laundry customer of Rebecca, who works overtime to supplement the family’s meager income. Compassionate and without a prejudicial bone in her body, Mrs. Boatwright lends David her copy of The Three Musketeers, recommending that they discuss it when he is done. The kids later gleefully witness their father pitch a winning baseball game. Then disaster strikes when Nathan is arrested and handcuffed by Sheriff Young and his deputy for stealing the ham from a neighbor. Sounder breaks loose from David’s hold and runs after the sheriff’s truck, as the deputy takes aim with his shotgun. Just as he shoots, Nathan interferes by jerking his leg to prevent a fatal shot. Sounder is bloodied and limps off into the woods as David tries to follow. He eventually loses the pursuit. Rebecca leaves to walk many miles to see her husband in the jail, but is told by the Sheriff that black woman are forbidden to visit their jailed husbands. She stops by the general store to exchange walnuts for the ingredients to bake a cake where Perkins reprimands her for her husband’s bout with the law, telling her it made him look bad. He tells Rebecca that her and her family must do the cropping on their own if Nathan is not released by the spring, and Rebecca agrees with some veiled sarcasm about their obligations to Perkins.
Nathan is sentenced to one year of hard labor at a parish prison camp ,leaving his family in tears and uncertainty. David never gives up the mission to find Sounder, and continues the hunt. Rebecca asks David to bring the finished cake to Nathan, but the boys suffers the indignity of having the cake tampered with, as a jail officer searches it for files. Nathan and David share the cake, but concerned for the boy’s safety asked him not to return. The family work hard to make up for Nathan’s absence, but David is ecstatic when Sounder returns, seemingly recovered, but without the desire or ability to bark. The family attends church on the weekend and David reads from The Three Musketeers at night. Despite heartfelt pleas from Rebecca, the Sheriff refuses to let her know the whereabouts of the prison camp where Nathan is held, citing the rules. David asks Mrs. Boatwright to intervene, and the woman also visits the sheriff, who tells her to mind her own business and not be concerned with a little “colored boy.” After the sheriff emphatically refuses her request, she is caught looking in his files, and he threatens to expose her to the community, the membership of course are bigots like the officers. Though Mrs. Boatright initially balks at telling David the jail location (David senses she is lying) because of the fear of reprisals, she shortly thereafter arrives at the house with the identity of the place. David sets off with Sounder on a multi-day odyssey through varying weather, but finds the prison only to be told that nobody can identify his father. David realizes they are all lying but is completely helpless, even getting whacked on the hand with a pipe by a particularly nasty officer.
David gets his hand nursed by a black teacher named Camille, of an all-black school, and she takes a special liking to the boy. She teaches him about important blacks in American history, and her impressive book collection includes works by intellectuals like W.E.B. Dubois. The boy returns home before the film’s big emotional centerpiece – Nathan’s return. Rebecca is alerted by Sounder’s rejuvenated barking, and she dashes to to contribute her end of one of the American cinema’s most passionate and poignant embraces. David balks at returning to the school, realizing that the love of family can never be compromised, but that father knows well that Southern society’s ill treatment is a dead-end street for a boy wanting to make something out of his life. His advice to David is telling: “You lose some of the time what you go after, but you lose all of the time what you don’t go after.” The central theme of hope revolves around the boy’s aspirations, the family’s faith in success, and beyond the passage of black Americans from the suffocating social restrictions.
The simplicity of this story makes the kind of wrenching emotions it engenders all the more astonishing. By a sudden span of adversity a boy is forced to take on life-defining responsibilities when he is suddenly thrust into a position where others rely on him, rather than the other way around. Hence the terms coming-of-age, loss of innocence and baptism under fire at a difficult time for African-Americans are worthy definitions of the kind of film Sounder is. In Armstrong’s book the characters are unnamed, the white people are crueler yet, and the father’s penance lasts far more than the year it does in the movie. The book’s ending is more tragic, but it feels more authentic.
For a drama like Sounder to hit the mark, the performances must be exceptional. As it is they are exactly that and more. the most interesting characters are the two women. Cicely Tyson is a tower of fortitude, patience and compassion – the true heart and soul of the Morgan family, and inspiring to her adoring children. Tyson is a force of nature. As the teacher Janet MacLachlin plumbs the surface to give David the confidence and sense of worth to move forward, and MacLachlan projects sincerity and patience modulated in sensitive strokes. As the saintly Mrs. Boatwright Carmen Matthews is irresistible in a role some might refer to as politically correct. Paul Winfield plays a man who will cross lines for his family, and he holds back bitterness to show the best face for his children in a believable portrayal of great sensitivity. Young Kevin Hooks as David is a revelation, turning in an affecting performance of the character who changes the most. James Best pulls no bunches in a most unlikable role as Sheriff Young.
The film’s mood and setting are most effectively established by John Alonzo’s earthy widescreen cinematography, imbued as it is with humanist tones, and like the dismal social and political period the film is set in, the colors are rightly muted. Contributing mightily to the time frame and mood is Taj Mahal’s sparce blues score. Sounder surprisingly received a Best Picture nomination alongside The Godfather, Cabaret, The Emigrants and Deliverance in addition to the two acting nominations for Tyson and Winfield and a well-deserved screenplay nod to Lonne Elder III. It is not only the best film ever based on a Newbery winner, but one of the most honest films ever made about the African-American experience in the Deep South.