TCM Diary: 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.”
—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 hunting 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, with a screenplay adaptation by Lonne 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). Lonne 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.” It is one of the great reunion scenes in American cinema.
Sounder received four Academy Award nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor/Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay, to Lonne 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.
Sounder airs February 22 on Turner Classic Movies.
Sheila O’Malley is a regular film critic for Rogerebert.com and other outlets including The Criterion Collection. Her blog is The Sheila Variations.