- Director: Martin Ritt
- Writers: Lonne Elder III, based on the novel by William H. Armstrong
- Starring: Cicely Tyson, Paul Winfield, Kevin Hooks, Carmen Matthews, Taj Mahal, James Best, and Janet MacLachlan
- Accolades: 4 Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Actor – Paul Winfield, Best Actress – Cicely Tyson, and Best Adapted Screenplay)
- Where to Watch: Buy or rent on Amazon Video
Cicely Tyson was one of the most acclaimed and beloved Black actresses of her lifetime. In addition to her role in Sounder, she had prominent roles in the miniseries Roots and King (where she played Coretta Scott King), played pioneering eductor Marva Collins in The Marva Collins Story, and won universal praise for her portrayal of a centenarian Black woman over the course of her long life in the TV movie The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. In 1979 she even hosted what is apparently still the highest-rated (in terms of viewers) episode of Saturday Night Live of all time. Her only Oscar nomination came for her portrayal of the mother in a struggling Black family in 1972’s Sounder, which brought her to mainstream attention after starting her career on stage and with a role on the soap opera Guiding Light. She lost out on the award to Liza Minnelli in Cabaret, but would later receive a Lifetime Achievement Oscar, as well as a Peabody Award. Cicely Tyson passed away this week at the age of 96, so I decided to check out one of her better known roles.
The movie Sounder was based on a recently popular young adult novel telling the story of a struggling family of Black sharecroppers in 1930s Louisiana. The novel centers around the relationship of a young boy, his father, and their hound dog, Sounder. The dog and his travails remain in the movie, though the story is heavily recentered on the humans of the family. The father (Paul Winfield) steals a ham to feed his family, but is soon caught and sent to prison. When he is arrested, Sounder runs after him and is shot by one of the sheriff’s men, though the bullet only grazes him, and the dog runs off “to heal.” In Louisiana at the time, the family’s visits to the father in jail are heavily restricted, and then he is sentenced to a year in a labor camp. The mother (Tyson) works with all of her children to keep up the family’s share of the harvest for their landlord, despite the fact that the sheriff refuses to tell her where the camp is that her husband has been sent to. After the harvest, a white lady who the mother does laundry for (Carmen Matthews) takes pity on them and finds out from the sheriff, and the son (Kevin Hooks) sets out with a newly returned Sounder to the camp, but cannot find his father. On his way back, he is taken in by a kindly schoolteacher (Janet MacLachlan) who teaches him about prominent figures in Black history such as W.E.B. DuBois. The father arrives home but is badly injured from an accident at the labor camp, and the son has to choose between pursuing his education and helping to take care of his family.
Sounder was something of an experiment in its day, a drama about a Black family meant to be watched by all ages. In 1972, most Hollywood studio movies starring Black people would fit into the “Blaxploitation” genre, but Sounder was based on a Newbery Award-winning young adult novel and meant for a very different audience. The film cost less than a million dollars to make, and then Fox spent another million on marketing, a campaign that included getting endorsements from prominent Black churches and producing a “study guide” written by Dr. Roscoe Brown, Jr., a Professor of African-American Studies at NYU, with the intention that teachers could take their classes to see the movie on a field trip. The strategy, to the surprise of many in Hollywood, worked: Sounder rated among the top 10 movies of 1972 at the US Box Office and garnered several Oscar nominations.
I wasn’t sure about Sounder going in, both because movies named after dogs don’t have a great track record and because I was worried that it would turn into, to borrow a term, “misery porn.” But it isn’t. These are proud people who work hard to earn a living from the land. While they have to battle against unfair prejudice, nobody in the movie is comically evil, and this is a movie that literally has a guy shooting a dog in it. The Sheriff (James Best, whose most famous role would be another sheriff in the Deep South, on The Dukes of Hazzard) who arrests Paul Winfield’s character and then won’t let the family see him or tell them where he’s being held, is the closest thing to a villain and face of white prejudice in the movie, but he seems more cowardly than evil. He claims repeatedly that he’s “just following the rules.” As Sheriff, of course, he is in a position where he has the power to push back against those rules, but he is not willing to stick his neck out in the slightest for the family. The sharecropper landlord (Ted Airhart) pushes Cicely Tyson’s character on how she’ll pay her rent with the father in prison, to which she simply replies that the family will do what it has to do. But when they produce their share on time, he tells her that the family has done a good job and acts friendly. She says nothing in response.
Which isn’t to say that I found Sounder watchable because it doesn’t vilify white people, but instead to note that it seems to have a more honest understanding of what life in that situation would have been like for Black sharecroppers. There is a lot of hard work, but there is also love and joy, whether between husband and wife or between kid and dog. Life is unfair, but most of the time they can’t do anything about it. The people who think they’re better than you will compliment you or be friendly most of the time, but if you ever ask something from them they will turn away. When the son leaves at the end for school, he tells his father, “I’m gonna miss this old, raggedy place, but I sure won’t worry about it.”
Really, I’d say it was the performances, especially by Tyson and Winfield, that got me into the movie. They manage to show the basic dignity and underlying emotion of these characters without ever really being too showy. There’s a scene when the father returns from prison with husband and wife running towards each other across a field, arms outstretched, that should be the most cliched thing in the world. And I mean, it is, but it works remarkably well because of Tyson and Winfield’s pitch-perfect performances. Also, I think the dog probably does not get enough credit despite playing a character overcoming a physical disability, that is usually Oscar bait so I’m not sure what the issue is.