"[Sounder's] was not an ordinary bark. It filled up the night and made music as though the branches of all the trees were being pulled across silver strings."
--William H. Armstrong, Sounder
William H. Armstrong's 1969 Newbery Medal-winning children's book, Sounder, is only eight chapters long. Told from the perspective of a young boy, it's written in a pared-down style that sings with a wild country poetry. The story follows a sharecropping family who falls on even harder times when "father" is busted for stealing a pig. Sounder is the family's coon dog and the only character in the book with a name. When the white cops come for "father," Sounder chases after the truck carrying away his beloved master, and one of the cops shoots the dog. Sounder limps into the woods, and the mystery of his fate haunts the boy.
The 1972 film of Sounder was directed by Martin Ritt, screenplay adaptation by Lonnie Elder III, and stars Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson (in Oscar-nominated performances). Filmed on location in Louisiana, the movie starts at night, with Nathan Lee (Paul Winfield) taking his son David (Kevin Hooks) and Sounder out raccoon-hunting. When they lose the raccoon they've been tracking--the raccoon that would have been their only meal of the day--Nathan vanishes. The next morning, Rebecca (Cicely Tyson) cooks sausages on the stove, exchanging wary glances with her husband. It takes a couple of days for the cops to show up and arrest Nathan.
Rebecca does laundry for a white woman (Carmen Mathews) named Mrs. Boatwright, who does her best to get intel on which prison or work camp Nathan has been sent to. Invented for the film, she could be seen as a White Savior, but that's not how Ritt positions her. She does what she can, and disappears from the film. The real savior arrives in the form of Camille Johnson (Janet MacLachlan), a teacher at a black school who takes David in during his travels to find his father. She introduces him to Crispus Attucks, Harriet Tubman, W.E.B. Du Bois. This is also an invention for the film, and it's eloquent in its intention. Where the film deviates from the book, it does so with a thoughtful purpose (and in some cases improves upon its source). Lonnie Elder III, an African-American writer adapting a beloved book by a white man, effectively adds a roll call of the major figures in black history. Miss Johnson, a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse, hands David his historical inheritance.
Ritt and cinematographer John A. Alonzo approached Sounder with documentary realism, inspired by Depression-era photojournalists like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, who captured the hard-bitten sharp-elbowed look of the dust-bowl poor. Another obvious influence is the work of photographer Gordon Parks, who documented African-American life in the 1940s through the '60s (before going on to direct Shaft in 1971). These photographers looked at poverty without sentimentality and with palpable anger. (Parks's photo American Gothic: Washington D.C. is a perfect example.) Nothing feels put on or manufactured in Sounder. The sweat stains are real, as are the buzzing flies and the dust filling the air. Alonzo's sensitivity to the natural world gives Sounder a poetic resonance: the dark woods with mist rolling through, boy and dog silhouetted against a blue dusk, green fields at sunset, and--crucially, symbolically--the dirt road leading away from the Lees' cabin.
Although cruelty is not soft-pedaled in Sounder, one of the film's distinguishing characteristics (which separates it from the book) is its inclusion of joy. Nathan is a pitcher for a baseball team of black sharecroppers, and the game is a well-deserved respite from work. The family strolls home through the fields, Nathan and Rebecca walking with their arms around one another, joking with their friend (blues musician Taj Mahal, who contributed music for the film). Winfield and Tyson, with no dialogue, suggest the intimacy and heat between this couple, how connected they are. When Nathan comes home after serving his sentence, there's a moment where they catch eyes over the kids' heads, longing to finally be alone together. In these scenes is the rich texture of life. It feels more authentic than an uninterrupted parade of misery. Or, to put it another way: the joy is as real as the misery. The sensitivity and subtlety of this is Elder's contribution.
Paul Winfield's Nathan is proud and hard-working, strong and virile. When he laughs, the sound rings into the sky, and his pleasure--in his wife, his kids, baseball--is intense and uncomplicated. Cicely Tyson appears to have literally stepped out of a photograph from 1933. She does not condescend to the character. When David reads to the family a letter he has written to Miss Johnson, Tyson says admiringly, "You sure write a good fine letter, son. A good fine letter." She plays it so simply it makes you weep. In the masterfully edited sequence when Nathan reappears, she sees his distant limping figure and then breaks into a run. As she runs, she makes moaning and gasping sounds, her arms flung out, every fiber of her being yearning to get to him. A moment like this exists as an apotheosis of performance that goes far beyond "good acting." Along with the train station sequence in Reds, this is the great reunion scene in American cinema.
Sounder received four Academy Award nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor/Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay, to Lonnie Elder III. The year 1972 could have been a watershed if the industry had cared to pay attention. Suzanne de Passe, another African-American writer, received a Best Original Screenplay nomination for Lady Sings the Blues; it would take until 2016 for two black writers to be nominated in the same year (Moonlight and Fences). Additionally, Diana Ross was nominated Best Actress for her performance as Billie Holliday in Lady Sings the Blues. This means that for the first--and only--time in Oscar history two of the Best Actress nominees were black women.
Ritt cut his teeth as an apprentice at the Group Theatre in New York in the 1930s. Like many in that "radical" crowd, he was blacklisted in the early '50s. His films often dealt with injustice, corruption, the fight of the "little guy." He knew Sounder was more than the sentimental story of a father, a boy and a dog. Calling the film a "family classic" is both accurate and incomplete. It works for children but its impact increases with age and experience. The film is pure emotion, huge, unforced, coming directly out of the characters' experiences. Sounder obliterates viewer distance in a way other films can only dream of.
by Sheila O'Malley
To read the article at Film Comment and explore the website, Click Here. To learn more about Film Comment magazine, please visit www.filmcomment.com and to subscribe go to www.filmcomment.com/subscribe-to-film-comment-magazine/.
Cast & Crew
In Louisiana in 1933, the Morgan family, Nathan Lee, Rebecca and children David Lee, Earl and Josie Mae, suffers the myriad deprivations of the Depression, barely surviving by sharecropping for demanding store owner Mr. Perkins. Early one evening, Nathan takes David and their beloved dog Sounder to hunt raccoon for dinner. Nathan's shot misses its target, however, and although he is angry and depressed that once again there will be no meat on the family table, Rebecca responds to the news with customary composure. Later, Rebecca reminds Nathan they have been through other tough times, but he bitterly wonders why they toil ceaselessly to make Perkins richer. In the morning, Rebecca finds sausage and ham in the kitchen, and cooks it without a word. After the thrilled children eat their fill, she mildly asks Nathan where he was the previous night, and he responds, "I did what I had to do." David attends school, where he and the other few black children in the class must sit in the back row. Later, the children bring Mrs. Rita Boatwright her laundry, which Rebecca, who takes in laundry to supplement the family's income, has washed. The kindly white woman lends David her copy of The Three Musketeers and offers to discuss it with him. The children then rush to the sugar cane fields, where the men are playing baseball, in time to see Nathan pitch a winning game. On the walk home they celebrate with family friends Ike and Harriet, but upon reaching their home, are distressed to see Sheriff Charlie Young and his deputy waiting there. Young brusquely arrests Nathan for stealing the ham from a neighbor's smokehouse, and leads him off to jail in handcuffs. When Sounder, barking loudly, follows the truck, the deputy shoots him. Sounder limps off into the woods, and Rebecca holds tight to Earl and Josie Mae as David follows the wounded dog, but cannot locate him. Soon after, Rebecca goes to town to visit Nathan, leaving David in charge. As the children wait in tense silence, Rebecca walks miles in the heat to the jail, but despite her pleas, Young announces that black women are forbidden to visit their husbands in jail. While in town, she stops by Perkins' store to trade walnuts for ingredients to bake Nathan a cake. Perkins complains to Rebecca that Nathan has made him look bad, as he has been good to the family, and demands that she do the cropping on her own if Nathan is not home by spring. At the trial, Nathan is sentenced to one year of hard labor at a parish prison camp. Over the next days, while David searches for Sounder, Rebecca bakes the cake and has David bring it to Nathan. From his cramped cell, Nathan struggles to reach the high window for a glimpse of Rebecca, but cannot. He collects himself and shares the cake with David, then asks the boy not to return. In Nathan's absence, the family toils day and night to support themselves. At night, David reads The Three Musketeers to them, and on the weekends they attend church. After church one day, they are visited by the reverend, who reminds a skeptical Rebecca to take her troubles to the Lord. One night, Sounder returns. David ministers to him, and although the dog heals, he will not bark. After the sheriff refuses to inform Rebecca to which labor camp Nathan has been sent, David asks Mrs. Boatwright to find out for him. Young refuses to tell her the information, so after he leaves the office, she screws up her courage to spy in Nathan's file. Returning, Young catches her and declares that if she reveals Nathan's whereabouts to Rebecca, he will turn the entire parish against her. Outside, Mrs. Boatwright tells David that she did not see the name of the labor camp, but knowing that she is lying, he turns away wordlessly. Soon after, however, Mrs. Boatwright arrives at the house and announces the location of the labor camp to Rebecca, who cries with joy. The older woman teaches the family to read a map and pinpoints the location of the camp, and the next day, Rebecca sends David off with Sounder to find his father. Over many days, the boy travels through rain and sunshine, woods and fields, finally reaching the labor camp. There, however, no one will talk to him for fear of reprisal, and the foreman hits his hand with a pipe and chases him away. Dejected, David walks to a nearby schoolhouse, and inside is stunned to see that all the students are black. The young black teacher, Camille Johnson, invites him in and tends to his hand, and upon noting his fascination with the classroom, offers to put him up for the night. Her lovely home is filled with books, and Camille inspires David with tales of notable blacks in history and the writings of intellectuals such as W. E. B. Dubois. The next morning, in class, one boy tells a story of rescuing his sister from drowning, and although the other children doubt his veracity, David defends the boy, knowing that people can achieve the impossible when they are forced to do so. He sets off again for home, laden with books from Camille and hoping fervently to return. Rebecca welcomes him joyously, and although she knows that his returning to Camille's school will mean even more work for her, she agrees to consider it. Over the hot summer, they reap and process the sugar cane, and at the end of cropping season receive their meager payment. One afternoon as Rebecca is sewing, she hears Sounder suddenly bark and run off down the road, and realizes that at long last Nathan has returned. Shouting his name, she runs to meet him, and although he is limping, he drops his cane and rushes to her. The family embraces, weeping with joy. At dinner, Nathan explains that he was injured in a dynamite blast that rendered him unable to work and so was released early. David feels hugely relieved to have Nathan home, but when his father tries to work the next day, he collapses in pain, then bravely carries on. Later, a letter from Camille arrives for David, instructing him to arrive within the week. Nathan is pleased, but David announces that he will not leave his father's side. When Nathan shakes him in anger, declaring that he needs schooling like he needs "good air to breathe," David runs off. At Rebecca's urging, Nathan tracks David to the nearby pond and gently tells the boy that when he was wounded, he made up his mind to beat death, and now he wants David to beat the life that is in store for him. He promises to love David no matter where he is. Days later, David, dressed in a new suit, bids goodbye to his mother, sister and brother and sets out for his school, accompanied by his proud father.
Sylvia "kuumba" Williams
Judge William Thomas Bennett
Reverend Thomas N. Phillips
Jerry Leggio Jr.
Walker L. Chaney
John A. Alonzo
Lonne Elder Iii
Joseph Marquette Jr.
Robert B. Radnitz
Nedra Rosemond Watt
Best Writing, Screenplay
Film Comment: Sounder
"[Sounder's] was not an ordinary bark. It filled up the night and made music as though the branches of all the trees were being pulled across silver strings."
Film Comment: Sounder
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
The onscreen credits include the written statement: "Taj Mahal's songs copyright 1972 Blackwood Music, Inc., courtesy of Columbia Records." The music credits end with the statement: "And special thanks to John Williams." A written credit reads: "Sounder was filmed in its entirety on location in St. Helena and East Feliciana Parishes in Louisiana. We wish to thank Sheriff Arch V. Doughty, Judge William T. Bennett, The St. Helena Parish School Board and all of the other people of these areas who made this film possible." Although the actress' name is spelled "Merle Sharkey" in the onscreen credits, all contemporary sources list her as "Myrl." Yvonne Jarrell's name is spelled "Jarrel" in the opening credits.
As noted onscreen, Sounder was based on the 1969 novella of the same name by William H. Armstrong, which won a Newberry Award in 1970. In the book, the characters have no names. While much of the film's action hews closely to book, in the novel the boy lives for a year with the teacher, and the action ends with the death of Sounder and the father, who was partially paralyzed by his accident. While the book centers on the family's concern for the dog, screenwriter Lonne Elder III stated in a November 1972 interview in the New Watts Awakening that he preferred to focus on the family's daily survival. In the interview, Elder noted that he at first refused the assignment, but producer Robert B. Radnitz and director Martin Ritt, who approached him after having seen one of his plays, convinced him to work with them. "I wanted to keep Sounder...accurate in its historical context, and not go off on any present-day fantasies," he added.
Sounder marked the first collaboration between Radnitz and toy company Mattel. A July 1971 Daily Variety news item stated that Mattel would back eight productions with budgets of $750,000-$1,000,000 each. In January 1973, Radnitz told Hollywood Reporter that Mattel gave him complete freedom in making the film and did not view a print until Sounder was completed.
According to a modern source, the filmmakers originally intended to shoot in Macon, GA, but racial tensions caused them to move to Louisiana. In addition to location shooting in Louisiana's East Feliciana and St. Helena parishes, an August 1971 Daily Variety news item mentions Baton Rouge as a location. Ritt hired many locals to play small roles, including 12-year-old Jarrell, who played "Josie Mae," Judge William Thomas Bennett and Reverend Thomas M. Phillips, the local Baptist preacher. Many of the locations were found on site, including the schoolhouse, sharecropper's shack and church. As noted in a September 20, 1971 Hollywood Reporter news item, a hurricane delayed the production for several days, due to flooding and high winds.
In a modern interview, Ritt related that he took an eighty percent pay cut to direct the film. Kevin Hooks, who played "David Lee Morgan," was the son of Negro Ensemble Company founder Robert Hooks. Kevin and his younger brother Eric made their feature film debuts in Sounder, as did blues singer Taj Mahal. In a January 2003 New York Times article, Hooks stated that the scene of "Rebecca Morgan" running to meet the returning "Nathan Lee Morgan" was based on the finale of the 1925 King Vidor film The Big Parade. The article designates that image as the film's most famous.
In May 1972, trade papers announced that Twentieth-Century Fox had made a deal to distribute Sounder, which studio president Gordon Stulberg called "a landmark production." The film screened out of competition on August 13, 1972 at the Atlanta Film Festival. It had its premiere on 24 September in New York, then opened in Los Angeles on October 12, 1972. Over the following year, it was chosen as the American entry in several foreign film festivals, including those in Tehran, Moscow and Pakistan.
Sounder received warm reviews and almost universal praise as a welcome antidote to the contemporaneous wave of black films, most of which were considered low quality, low budget and exploitative. The film's sensitive, intelligent depiction of a loving family was hailed as a banner accomplishment for black filmmakers and audiences. A September 1972 Daily Variety article proclaimed that the picture had been "for good or ill, singled out to test whether the black audience will respond to serious films about the black experience rather than the `super black' exploitation features." As noted in the Washington Post review, despite popular skepticism that the film could be a financial success and the belief that "the black film market is exclusively an action and exploitation market," the picture was a major box-office success. Made for less than $1 million, by September 1973, as reported in a Los Angeles Times article, Sounder had made $15 million. A September 1973 Los Angeles Times article stated that subsequent Radnitz/Mattel films, including Where the Lillies Bloom (1974), would be financed by the profits made by the film.
Some of the picture's success was due to its innovative marketing strategy. As laid out in a November 1972 Variety article, Fox focused on group sales in major cities and targeted religious organizations and schools. A January 1973 Hollywood Reporter article added that Radnitz personally visited thirty-five cities and held over 500 screenings, with sixty simultaneous sneak previews held in New York. The religious establishment came out in favor of the film, with an endorsement by the Catholic Film Office and a study guide for religious educators created by the National Council of Churches. The Variety article noted that Fox also wrote a study guide, prepared by Dr. Roscoe Brown, Jr., director of Afro-American Affairs at New York University. Fox spent over $1 million on promoting the film, according to a March 1973 Variety article. Despite this, a May 1972 Daily Variety article noted that Radnitz hoped to distribute further productions by himself.
In addition to critical praise, the film received numerous awards and accolades. It garnered Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Writing (Screenplay-Based on Material from Another Medium), Best Actor (Paul Winfield) and Best Actress (Cicely Tyson). The nominations were landmarks for black talent: Along with Suzanne De Passe, who wrote 1972's Lady Sings the Blues, Elder was the first black writer nominated; Winfield was the third black actor honored (after Sidney Poitier and James Earl Jones) and, along with fellow 1972 nominee Diana Ross (for her role in Lady Sings the Blues) Tyson marked the third black woman nominated [In 1955, Dorothy Dandridge had received a nomination for Best Actress for the 1954 film Carmen Jones]. In addition, Tyson and Hooks garnered Golden Globe nominations, Ritt was nominated for the DGA Award, Elder was nominated for the WGA Award and Taj Mahal earned a Grammy Award nomination for Album of Best Original Score Written for a Motion Picture.
Ritt stated in a modern interview that although he was originally resistant to casting Tyson, considering her "too pretty" for the role, she convinced him that she could play Rebecca. Her performance was singled out by many critics for its gravity and restrained quality. Among her many commendations, she won the National Society of Film Critics and National Board of Review awards for Best Actress.
Sounder was also recognized by myriad social organizations. The film received a special commendation in March 1973 from the California State Assembly, and in October 1972, was lauded on the floor of the national Congress by Hon. Charles C. Diggs, Jr. of Michigan, who declared the film "a turning point in the art of the motion picture." As Roger Ebert noted in the Chicago Sun-Times review, Coretta Scott King commented that the character of "David Lee Morgan" reminded her of her late husband, Dr. Martin Luther King. Ritt referred to Sounder in a modern interview as his most financially and possibly most artistically successful film.
Despite the acclaim, however, some detractors emerged. Vincent Canby wrote in New York Times that Sounder's appeal derived more from its superiority to most "black" films than from its inherent excellence, and called it patronizing. Another writer published an article in the November 12, 1972 issue of New York Times lambasting the film for its lack of realism, stating that "blacks still know too little about each other...while white filmmakers are laughing their heads off all the way to the bank." Elder wrote a letter to the editor countering both critiques, stating that the characters were based on people he knew, and labeling Canby's tone "condescending hauteur." Other reviewers felt that the film was overly simplistic and sentimentalized, while the New Watts Awakening critic stated: "While Sounder no doubt is a milestone, much of its effect is diluted by keeping the action detached and isolated in its historical setting."
Radnitz and Mattel went on to make six more feature films and a television movie together. In January 1983, Radnitz sued Mattel, Inc. to stop the barter-based sale of the eight films he produced with them. The article noted that Mattel purchased Radnitz' stock in the company in 1974, and the agreement at that time stipulated that the film could only be sold on a cash basis. The disposition of the suit is not known.
A sequel, entitled Sounder, Part 2, was released in 1976, written by Elder and directed by William A. Graham. Teddy Airhart reprised his role as "Mr. Perkins" in that film. A musical theater remake was announced in trade publications in February 1984, with Radnitz stating that Louis Gossett, Jr. was in discussions to star, and in a December 1995 Daily Variety news item Radnitz reported that he was talking to jazz musician Wynton Marsalis to score the musical. However, a theatrical version was never produced. A remake aired on ABC's Wonderful World of Disney on January 19, 2003. Directed by Hooks, it starred Daniel Lee Robertson III, Carl Lumbly and Suzzanne Douglass, with Winfield playing a teacher. Hooks stated in a January 2003 New York Times article on the remake that watching director of photography John A. Alonzo during the shooting of Sounder had inspired him to become a director.
Received a special commendation from the California State Assembly in March, 1973.
Declared "a turning point in the art of the motion picture" by Hon. Charles C. Diggs, Jr. of Michigan on the floor of the national Congress in October, 1972.
DGA nomination for Ritt.
Golden Globe nominations for Tyson (Best Motion Picture Actress) and Hooks (Most Promising Newcomer).
WGA nomination for Elder for Best Drama Adapted from Another Medium.
Released in United States Summer August 13, 1972
Released in United States March 1996
Shown at Santa Barbara International Film Festival (Homage to Robert Radnitz) March 8-17, 1996.
Based on the William H. Armstrong novella "Sounder" (New York, 1969).
Released in United States Summer August 13, 1972
Released in United States March 1996 (Shown at Santa Barbara International Film Festival (Homage to Robert Radnitz) March 8-17, 1996.)