Sounder (1972)

23 Mar

Sounder

Smith’s Verdict: ****
Reviewed by Tanner Smith

As I begin my review of this wonderful film called “Sounder,” I would like to talk about my favorite scene. It’s late in the film, as its pre-teenage hero, David Lee (Kevin Hooks), visits a school where one of the class tells a story about how he saved his sister from drowning in a creek. The other students think he’s lying; they know he can’t swim. The boy insists the story is true. But David Lee believes, and he speaks for him. He believes the boy had to jump into the water even though he couldn’t swim was because he had to, in order to save his sister from drowning. It’s just like how he, his mother (Cicely Tyson), and his two younger, smaller siblings had to look after the crops after his father (Paul Winfield) has been sent away to serve a one-year hard labor sentence. No one believed they could do it, but they did. Why? Because they had to; otherwise, they wouldn’t survive. After putting it that way, the rest of the class applauds him.

The film is set in the mid-1930s, during the Great Depression, filled with ordinary people doing what they could with what they had. And for a family of poor black sharecroppers in Louisiana, who are the central characters in “Sounder,” they had to work harder, even in the midst of family crises. This is the ethical center of the film: ordinary people faced with needs and rising to the occasion. It’s somewhat easy to root for heroes who have superpowers, lead armies, give big speeches, etc. But it’s so much easier to root for central characters who are not meant for great purposes other than looking out for each other and doing what they can to make their situations better, while also searching for and finding that special feeling within themselves to keep going.

“Sounder” is a slice-of-life film that focuses on such characters. In rural Louisiana, a family of black sharecroppers go through a crisis they have to push themselves out of somehow, and the film shows how they all grow in the process. The oldest son, David Lee, comes of age; his mother is more determined than before; and his father, having served a jail sentence (this is for stealing food for the family early in the film), has valuable advice for David Lee after his return home. The film is about truth and development, centered on real, fully-realized characters who love and try to help each other. As a result, it becomes one of the most moving, effective family films I’ve ever seen—I take it back; maybe not just “family” films, but films in general.

The film is episodic in its storytelling, showing us time after time in a series of events that make up the ethical center. The closest thing that happens on an action level is a sequence in which David Lee and his hunting dog, Sounder, set off on a journey to find the prison camp his father was sent to. He doesn’t have any luck when he gets there, but he does come across a black school where he attends a class and is taken in for a couple of nights by the friendly schoolteacher, who invites him to live with her while he attends her school. It’s here where that scene I mentioned in the first paragraph comes into place.

Another favorite scene comes near the end. The payoff is very effective in a simply moving way. David Lee’s father finally comes home, and David Lee never wants to be without him again, so he doesn’t want to leave to go to the school. But his father insists that he should. Angry and sad, David Lee runs away. But his father catches up to him and gives him a speech about how he shouldn’t get too used to this place; otherwise, he won’t leave and his future will be aimless. It’s a very realistic moment between father and son, and the father’s words are perfectly chosen.

Simply put, “Sounder” is an excellent film with a simple yet affectionate story of growth, love, and hope. The acting is great, especially from Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson (she brings a lot of subtlety to her role as a nervous but determined mother); the emotions and themes are mature and well-presented; and it’s a film for the whole family to see. Kids can get much out of it, adults can get even more, and all will see that this is a truly wonderful piece of work.

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