Seen by Martin before? No
What did I expect? A heartbreaking story of racial injustice, or something. With a dog.
What did I get? A confession: It took me a couple of viewings to really “get” Sounder. The self-consciously “virtuous” nature of the story of a struggling, African-American sharecropper family in the South set my teeth on edge right off the bat, for I instinctively resented the overt manipulation of being made to feel obliged, for reasons of political correctness, to gush about a movie that didn’t really excite me too much. However, if you can manage to clear your head of racial politics, as I eventually did, what’s left is a gentle and beautifully told story.
In fact Sounder does have a political agenda of sorts, but it’s decorously stowed away behind the furniture, which makes it rather more effective. The particulars of the setting are not emphasized — it’s the Deep South in the 1950s, I think, but much of the time it feels a few decades earlier than that. The life here is squarely bucolic and pre-modern, featuring lazy southern fields and forests, back-breaking labor, ramshackle single-room schoolhouses, and a caste system of considerable exactitude and, to the young protagonist, galling inexplicability.
Perhaps 12 years old, David Morgan learns a few things about life after his father Nathan is incarcerated for petty theft, leaving his mother Rebecca to mill the grain and get it to market as best she can. David and his family are never told where Nathan is being held — this being the accepted practice with “colored” prisoners, we’re told. (In an uncharacteristically blunt formulation, the local constable says that he’s just following orders. Hmmm.) The rank injustice of denying distraught Rebecca and her children such basic access occupies the narrative for a reel or so, but is not otherwise emphasized. It’s just what poor, uneducated black families had to put up with before the civil rights movement got going (and even those fundamental gains are still constantly threatened).
Sounder‘s straightforwardness is deceptive: this was originally a young-adult novel, and while the perspective is still decidedly that of a preadolescent, the movie has subtly been transformed into a movie for adults. Not solely for adults, of course, but little about Sounder feels dumbed-down for young audiences. Nothing about the movie earns my admiration more than this particular bit of alchemy.
It’s worth pondering why the movie is named after the family’s dog. The movie isn’t really about the dog in any real sense, which is what I was expecting. As Nathan is being apprehended at his home, the local (white) authorities shoot Sounder, who understandably is barking furiously at the sight of his master being hauled away. The wounded dog goes off into the woods, only to return a few weeks later. The metaphorical resonances are so oblique that they hardly exist, they operate on almost a preconscious level. Like Sounder, the Morgan family is hardworking, loyal, faithful, uneducated (sorry, but it’s true), beset by the evils of systemic racism, and possessed of an instinctive will to endure, mostly without complaint. A naive reading would conclude that black people were being treated like dogs, and while a takeaway as reductive as that does violence to Sounder‘s delicacy and subtlety, it’s not exactly wrong either.
In the last third of the movie, David discovers a school run a sympathetic black female teacher, who offers to see to his education. (The counterpoint of the white teacher of David’s old school, who blandly reads Huckleberry Finn to her charges, is, as is typical for the movie, not much emphasized, but it’s there.) David doesn’t want to leave his family, but Nathan nobly insists that education is too important.
A movie of our time might have explored just this dilemma or plumbed more zealously the injustices of a legal system that whisked black men from their families without much more than a sentence of explanation. But that approach would have denied us this more timeless, human movie.
What here smacks of 1972? For reasons that elude simple explanation, the time was right for a story of simple, black humanity to achieve widespread popularity.
IMDB score: 7.6
My score: 8
Director: Martin Ritt
Writer: Lonne Elder III
Starring: Cicely Tyson, Paul Winfield, Kevin Hooks, Carmen Mathews, Taj Mahal, James Best, Eric Hooks, Yvonne Jarrell, Sylvia Kuumba Williams, Teddy Airhart, Richard Durham, Wendell Brumfield, Al Bankston, Myrl Sharkey, Inez Durham
IMDB synopsis: The Morgans, a loving and strong family of Black sharecroppers in Louisiana in 1933, face a serious family crisis when the husband and father, Nathan Lee Morgan, is convicted of a petty crime and sent to a prison camp. After some weeks or months, the wife and mother, Rebecca Morgan, sends the oldest son, who is about 11 years old, to visit his father at the camp. The trip becomes something of an odyssey for the boy. During the journey he stays a little while with a dedicated Black schoolteacher.