If you're unfamiliar with this film, don't be fooled by the title. While "Sounder" is the name of a coon dog lovingly raised by a Louisiana sharecropper, circa 1933, this isn't a film in the tradition of other movies named for it's main canine--films like "Old Yeller," "Big Red," "Benji," or "Beethoven."
The dog gets his due in the early going when he barks nonstop on an unsuccessful coon hunt, but mostly this film is about bigger things than an old hound dog. "Sounder" is a warm and sensitive period family film about an African-American family just trying to get by during the Great Depression. Filmed entirely in East Feliciana and St. Helena Parishes, this 1972 film and its message of hope and change rings especially true during a year when the first African American was elected President. There's racism evident here even in the whites who treat their dark-skinned brothers and sisters with kindness, but there's also a thread of optimism that speaks as loudly as ol' Sounder. A winning script, organic cinematography, music from Taj Mahal, and some terrific performances by Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield added up to four Oscar nominations. And while the pace is slow as a southern drawl, if you give this film a chance it's still a rewarding experience on a number of levels.
Based on the 1969 Newberry Medal-winning juvenile novel by William H. Armstrong, "Sounder" is first and foremost a humanist story of a southern family's tenacity and resilience. Lonne Elder ("A Woman Called Moses") became the first African American to be nominated for a Best Screenplay Oscar with this excellent adaptation, and director Martin Ritt ("Hombre," "Norma Rae," "Cross Creek") doesn't force anything. He lets this moving and powerful story unfold the way the old Disney time-lapse nature photography created art from even the smallest natural moments.
From shots of convicts using a buzz saw to cut wooden planks to scenes that incorporate one of the locals playing a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse, "Sounder" is full of the kind of details that can give you a good sense of what everyday life was like for dirt-poor sharecroppers and townspeople in a small Louisiana town. This, along with the film's loving family and caring Others, make "Sounder" a great family movie.
"Dukes of Hazzard" fans will do a double-take when they see their beloved comic Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane playing it straight as Sheriff Young--the only real identifier that pulls you out of the illusion that we're actually watching a family and their struggles in a kind of early reality show. That's because the camerawork by John A. Alonzo ("Chinatown") maintains a nice balance between interesting angles to reinforce the action and close-ups or establishing shots that reflect his background working for National Geographic. The camerawork is, for the most part, as naturalistic and unobtrusive as nature photography, and that adds weight to this historical drama.
Nathan Lee Morgan (Winfield) is a hard worker who, like so many others, just isn't seeing that work pay off. But that doesn't stop him from being demonstrably in love with his hard-working wife, Rebecca (Tyson), and being in love with life. Whether hunting with his oldest son, David Lee Morgan (Kevin Hooks) or interacting with his other children, Nathan comes across as a gentle man, a good man, a wise man--someone we'd think incapable of stealing from a neighbor. And yet, this is the Depression and desperate times make desperate men.
Parents should know that the most intense moments in the film come when the father is handcuffed and hauled away to prison, and Sounder runs after the truck. The deputy raises his shotgun and points it at the animal, who only takes an indirect hit because Nathan was able to kick the gun as he pulled the trigger. But as in the book the dog limps off and disappears for a time. Other than that single instance, this is a gentle film that is clearly idealistic. Aside from lawmen, one of whom whacks young David Lee on the hand as he's trying to ask working convicts if they've seen his father, all of the characters in this film are gentle sorts and good hearts. The well-off white woman (Carmen Mathews) who pays Rebecca to do her laundry not only has coins for the kids who deliver the basket, but books she loans David Lee, asking that he return to discuss them. And when David Lee walks half the state looking for his father, a teacher (Merle Sharkey) takes him under her wing.
If authority figures take a beating, it's a double knockdown, because just as there was little faith in those who ran the system during the Great Depression, there wasn't much love for those in power during the Sixties, when Armstrong wrote his novel. But the resistance is passive and any disdain for authority figures is as soft-spoken as everything else in this quiet and unassuming film.
This old film shows its age with substantial grain, though the colors still hold for the most part. It's presented in 2.35:1 widescreen.
The audio is a slightly flat-sounding Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0, with no subtitles. But for a bargain-priced DVD, this one should sell well in the family market, and it's deserving of a wide audience.
There are no bonus features.
Tyson and Winfield earned their Oscar nominations, but young Hooks is also quite good. Just don't go into this family fare thinking dog movie, or your kids may be disappointed. Tell them it's the story of a family who lived at a time when America was in trouble, and let them see the amount of work that these kids do, the respect they have for adults, and the privilege that school is for them. And if that isn't a message that hits home, then contemporary times have taken too big of a toll.