Directed By: Martin Ritt
Written By: Lonne Elder III (based on the novel Sounder by William H. Armstrong)
Starring: Cicely Tyson, Paul Winfield, Kevin Hooks
The quality that most pervades Sounder is humility, both in scope and character. Based off the award winning novel of the same name by William H. Armstrong, Sounder is a fundamental story, one of race in Depression era Louisiana. But this isn’t a story of race in the vein of In the Heat of the Night or 12 Years a Slave. It isn’t vitriolic. The racism is plain, but it isn’t violent or gross to the extent often seen, because this isn’t a story of hatred. Rather it’s a story glowing in its simplicity, following a family of sharecroppers, headed by Nathan Lee Morgan (Paul Winfield), as they merely try to exist in America’s scorched Southern paddocks. It’s through the humility with which Martin Ritt approaches his material that he’s able to install Sounder with an utmost emotional honesty, a dignity and deftness.
There’s a revealing moment when the matriarch of the family (Cicely Tyson), whose husband has recently been arrested, is questioned by the unsympathetic Mr. Perkins. He’s Nathan’s employer, and he wants to know who’s going to crop for him when the season comes around with Nathan gone.
“Believe me” she says. “The children and me will do the cropping. We have to.”
What action there is of the plot revolves around this idea, the idea of necessity. It’s a moment evoked later on, when eldest son David (Kevin Hooks) listens to a classmate recount the story of how he saved his sister. She was drowning, and even though the boy didn’t know how to swim, he plunged himself into the water and pulled her to safety. And it’s evoked again near the film’s conclusion; a magically beautiful moment of father and son, as sincere and poignant as any scene of its kind. When something has to be done, these people do it, no matter the nature of the task.
It begins when Nathan (Paul Winfield) one day steals meat to feed his family. He’s sent to a prison camp, its location unknown to his family, buried somewhere deep in the sweltering Louisiana fields. Eleven year old David, to whom the story chiefly belongs, is sent out to find him, stumbling through the terrain with his eponymous dog Sounder in toe.
In many ways it’s what the film doesn’t do that makes it so praiseworthy. In different hands it’s no stretch to imagine Sounder falling into traps of over-sentimentality. It’s never condescending in its simplicity, never sanctimonious in its portrait of a family’s unconditional love. We never see it as being coy, despite how polite it is at its centre, and its characters are never diminished to hollow vehicles for pity.
As much as this is Mitt’s achievement, Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson are wonderfully human in their roles too. Both are kind, but wear the toll of their hardships for us to see. As Nathan, Winfield is frustrated and angry. As Rebecca, Tyson is scared and defensive. They’re charming, but they earn our compassion through honesty. Both performances are finely textured, never asking the viewer for anything, but never compromising the reality of their characters.
My soul criticism is that the story at times feels stagnant, particularly through its first half, as though it’s without a destination. It drags for brief moments, but the stillness of the narrative is never enough to moderate the authenticity of the Morgan’s. There’s always an admiration to be had in the film keeping its feet planted on the grounds of veracity.
Despite the inherent cruelty of racism, Sounder is a family movie, never exploiting the meanness burrowed in it for sympathetic ends. It’s moving because it never panders, it captivates us because it’s charming, and it’s affecting because it’s so truthful. It’s a film that’s elegant in how beautiful it is, and it’s a film made with an amazing respectfulness, for viewers and subject alike.