July 3, 2010

Sounder (1972)
Grade: 79/100

Director: Martin Ritt
Stars: Kevin Hooks, Paul Winfield, Cicely Tyson

What it's about. Set in the deep South during the Great Depression. A poor and struggling black sharecropper family is headed by father Paul Winfield, mother Cicely Tyson, and three children aged approximately between 6 and 12. The oldest of the children is Kevin Hooks, who also shows some academic promise despite a limited education in white schools.

Winfield is forced to steal food to keep his family fed. He is caught and sent to a faraway work camp. Tyson and her children must work the farm in his absence. Nonetheless, Hooks finds time during warm weather to journey to the distant work camp. On that journey he meets black schoolteacher Janet MacLachlan, who decides to help Hooks achieve his academic potential.

How others will see it. The low budget Sounder was lavished with critical praise. It received four major Academy Award nominations, but was shut out at the ceremonies, principally because of The Godfather.

The imdb.com user ratings are high at 7.7 out of 10. Ironically, audiences under 18 like the film least, and award it only 6.3. I say this is ironic, because the movie has a "G" rating, and the source novel was required reading for countless tweeners during the 1970s (I was one of them). However, the movie is not aimed at children, but at adults with control over what their children read and watch. Thus, many children have seen the movie at school over the years, and probably were bored with it, since family values cannot compete with the less conscientious media to which they are acclimated.

How I felt about it. Sounder impressed me considerably when I first it during the 1990s. Perhaps I have grown more cynical over subsequent years. I still admire the film greatly, but the Great Depression black sharecropper family now appears to me as we would have wanted them to be like, rather than as they would be like. That is, their portrayal is idealized, to intensify our sympathy for the injustice they face, and the hardships they endure and overcome.

For example, no one in the family drinks or smokes, or chews tobacco. They don't curse, they are never abusive, and while there are flashes of anger (they are human after all) such outbursts are limited. Cicely Tyson clearly dislikes the white owner of their farm (not that I blame her), but she expresses it indirectly, without open confrontation. And once she is physically distant from him, he leaves her thoughts. He doesn't embitter her.

The same can be said for Paul Winfield. He is sentenced to a year of hard labor for stealing a few pounds of meat to feed his family. During his imprisonment, he is nearly crippled by an injury. But he doesn't return home badmouthing his white oppressors. Hardship is a way of life, and can be beaten. The preacher (Reverend Thomas N. Phillips) says as much.

Also idealized is black schoolteacher Camille Johnson (Janet MacLachlan), who is so perfect that she is beautiful, intelligent, educated, an emotionally independent bachelorette, and is willing to share her home with young Kevin Hooks during the school year, as well as lend him books that he might never return.

But then, Hooks is idealized as well, the ultimate earnest, intelligent, and respectful pre-teenager. There's no chance that he will sell, lose, or abandon the books that Johnson lends him, and also no chance that he will lie about his family to Johnson in order to become her adopted son, which would greatly improve his chances for success in life.

Sounder benefits from an authentic-sounding soundtrack by blues singer and guitarist Taj Mahal, who also appears as Winfield's friend Ike.

Sounder is one of four films directed by Martin Ritt that currently reside in my Top 500 list. The others are Hud, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and The Front. Although little heralded, Ritt created an impressive ouvre, particularly since he was not a writer, and was blacklisted until 1957. 13 actors in Ritt movies were nominated for Oscars.