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Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield play Louisiana sharecroppers who are trying to survive during the Depression in Martin Ritt's Sounder (1972). The film, an adaptation of William H. Armstrong's novel, is the hard luck tale of Nathan Lee Morgan who is arrested for stealing food for his family, his wife who tries to keep their family together while he's away, and their child who is determined to help them.
During a time when "Blaxploitation" films like Shaft (1971) and Superfly (1972) were gaining popularity, Sounder (1972) (named after the family dog in the film), was a breath of fresh air for those looking for a worthwhile movie going experience for the entire family. Cicely Tyson, with her penetrating eyes and dignified presence, was perfect as the strong, able-bodied matriarch and would go on to reap critical acclaim for her performances in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974) and the mini-series Roots (1977). Few actresses could have matched her eloquence in such scenes as the one where she suppresses her anger while haggling with a white grocer or the moment when she first views her husband returning home after his release from a prison work camp. Not surprisingly, her work in Sounder earned Tyson an Academy Award Nomination for Best Actress. (She lost to Liza Minnelli in Cabaret that year).
Paul Winfield's performance as the unfortunate father is no less impressive than Tyson's and earned him an Oscar® nomination (for Best Actor) as well. Winfield brought a poignancy and depth to the role, allowing audiences to empathize with a man forced to steal for his family. A former graduate of UCLA and a native of Watts, California, Winfield was no stranger to playing unconventional heroes and men of action and is probably best know for his portrayal of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the mini-series King (1978).
Sounder was filmed on location in St. Helena Parish and East Feliciana Parish in Louisiana. The supporting cast includes Kevin Hooks, son of actor Robert Hooks, as the eldest son and musician Taj Mahal in his film debut as the Morgan's optimistic friend, Ike (He also provided the score).
In addition to the acting nominations, Sounder (1972) was nominated for Best Picture and Best Writing but did not win any of its nominations. Nevertheless, it was lavishly praised by the critics though some noted that it was safely rooted in the past, a fact that conveniently denied its characters an opportunity to vent their rage and rebelliousness unlike contemporary urban heroes like the title character in Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971).
Director: Martin Ritt
Producer: Robert B. Radnitz
Screenplay: William H. Armstrong, Lonne Elder III
Cinematography: John A. Alonzo
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).
C-106m. Letterboxed. Closed Captioning.
by Kerryn Sherrod