Monday, January 17, 2011

Sounder (1972)


          A graceful Depression-era drama about dignity and struggle, Sounder is grounded in authentic period detail, humanistic themes, meticulous character work, and a strong sense of place. Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield, who each received their only Oscar nominations for this movie, play the parents of an impoverished sharecropping family in 1933 Tennessee. When Nathan Lee Morgan (Winfield) steals food to keep his family alive, he’s given a harsh one-year prison sentence, forcing Rebecca (Tyson) and the children to pick up the slack with arduous farm work. The story focuses on Nathan Lee’s oldest son, David Lee (Kevin Hooks), who sets out on a long journey with the family dog, Sounder, to visit his father at a prison work camp. During his travels, David Lee meets a kind young teacher, Camille (Janet MacLachlan), who offers to take the boy into her home so he can study at a better school. Notwithstanding the intense scene of Nathan Lee’s arrest, during which Sounder is shot at by a trigger-happy deputy, director Martin Ritt and his team eschew narrative pyrotechnics in their sensitive adaptation of William H. Armstrong’s novel. Instead, they opt for a steady rhythm of one quietly convincing scene after another, letting emotions take center stage, somewhat in the style of To Kill a Mockingbird (1962).
          Hooks is a comfortable presence who neither detracts from nor elevates the movie, but Tyson and Winfield are moving. Winfield in particular evokes such intense feelings of anguish, emasculation, frustration, and pride that he’s a dominant presence even during the long sequences in which he’s unseen. Tyson, meanwhile, personifies endurance and strength, demonstrating how Rebecca finds the stamina to keep her family together. Bluesman Taj Mahal, who also provided the film’s score, appears in several scenes as a friendly neighbor always ready to entertain with his battered National guitar. If Sounder has a shortcoming, it’s that the movie is somewhat Pollyannish with its theme of the decent people in the world outnumbering the haters. For a story set in the Jim Crow South, that’s a heartening thought but not exactly a credible one.
         Following a respectable sequel made by a different team (1976’s Sounder, Part 2), Sounder was remade for television in 2003, with Hooks graduating from juvenile leading player to grown-up director; Winfield co-starred, delivering one of his last performances before he died in 2004.

Sounder: RIGHT ON

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