Oscar Blindspots: Sounder

It might be 50 years late, but I’ll be catching up on all the Oscar nominees and winners I have missed from the year 1972 through the month of May

Films about the Black experience made in the 70s can run the gamut from exploitative to patronizing. With Martin Ritt’s Sounder, sensitivity, grace, and a ensemble of great performances lift this film above the rest.

Kevin Hooks stars as David Lee Morgan, the eldest son of Louisiana sharecroppers in 1933. David is bright and occasionally attends school when he isn’t hunting with his father Nathan Lee (Paul Winfield) and their dog Sounder. He also helps his mother Rebecca (Cicely Tyson) on the farm as well as caring for his two younger siblings.

Unable to catch a racoon for meat, the children awaken to find ham cooking. Later that day, the sheriff arrests Nathan for stealing the ham from a local smokehouse. After Nathan’s sentencing, the family looks to find him at a work camp, but they do not know which one. David sets out to find his father accompanied by Sounder.

Like many other films of the time about the Black experience, this film was not directed by a Black person. Despite that separation, Ritt never patronizes the experiences and handles everything with necessary sensitivity. The Morgan family is loving and respectful to all people, despite an undercurrent of disdain for authority.

All of that disdain and hatred is under the surface. The audience keeps waiting for a burst of emotion from Rebecca or Nathan, but it never comes. It’s not that they don’t want to, but this is Depression-era segregated Louisiana. This is not a world where their opinions are taken into account and their voices are heard. With that knowledge, they stay silent.

Even the white people in a position of power are not overtly evil or cruel for no reason. Their actions can be seen as justified or “of the time.” Echoing Les Miserables, Nathan’s crime is never in question, but is done with good intentions. His guilt is correct but he is too proud to beg for any sort of forgiveness. Meanwhile, Rebecca and the children know what needs to be done in order to survive. It’s not about wanting to do it, it’s about the absolute necessity.

Tyson and Winfield play two very different sides of the family. Winfield gets to be more expressive when around his family. He is boisterous and bombastic, but shrinks around authority to hide his massive frame. Tyson is a steady hum of consistent work. It can be difficult to portray a reserved woman, but Tyson makes it sing.

Hooks is the true star of the film. Despite his obvious intelligence, he is still just a kid and acts like a kid. He talks back to his father, he helps read to his brother and sister, he runs around like a kid should. David is forced into adult situations, but he still approaches it with a child’s mentality. Oftentimes, child actors play a role like they were an adult. Hooks acts his age and the film is better for it.

The relationship between David and Nathan drives the film. As much as David yearns for time with Nathan, he also knows the advantage David will have with the benefit of an education. The parental chemistry Winfield has with Hooks is the driving force of the film.

Carmen Matthews and Janet MacLachlan provide sweet supporting characters for the family to interact with. Also look out for musician Taj Mahal as a goofy neighbor (who also provided the film score).

If you have the chance to watch Sounder, don’t hesitate. It’s a well-made, easy-to-watch story of a family just trying to survive. You can watch it for free on YouTube.

Next week: A foreign-language film makes the Best Picture lineup 50 years before it became more commonplace with The Emigrants

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