My Favorite Movies – Sounder (1972)

17 May

By Tanner Smith

I didn’t grow up with Sounder like I did with Old Yeller–probably an unfair comparison, since “Sounder” isn’t necessarily a boy-and-his-dog story, but I’ll get to that. I had always heard of it as a kid, but I never actually sat down and watched it until I was 22.

And I loved it. I think I would’ve loved it as a kid too. It’s truly fantastic. I now own it as part of a collection of 12 classic family films–the other 11 seem generic by comparison.

Strangely, even though the movie is named after the dog, Sounder himself is the least interesting element of the movie. (I never read the book the film was based on, so maybe he played a bigger part there.) That’s because Sounder, the film, is more about this family of black sharecroppers trying to survive in 1933 Louisiana. The family is starving, so the father (Paul Winfield) steals a ham. Then he’s taken away to prison, and so the boy, David Lee (Kevin Hooks), has to go out and look for him. The mother (Cicely Tyson) and her children have to look after the crop so they can survive. David Lee learns about opportunities outside of the farm, but he isn’t ready to leave his family for them. And so on. It’s great seeing how these characters live in this environment, and it’s done with astonishing realism.

And it does feel real, in the sense that it’s not just a nonstop parade of horrible misery–it knows when to saw the joyous moments too, such as when characters get together to play a game of baseball, and those scenes feel real too. And the emotions that are felt, especially near the end, when the father talks to his son about his choices in life, are spot-on and brilliantly acted.

My favorite scene: The aforementioned father-son moment near the end is wonderful and reminded me of a similar scene in “Old Yeller” (another comparison), but my personal favorite scene is one that lays down the theme of the whole film–it’s a classroom scene set midway through the film, as a student tells a story about how he saved his sister from drowning even though he himself couldn’t swim and no one believes his story except David Lee. Why? Because David Lee knew the kid had to do it, just like the family knew they had to keep going through the tough times.

Random side-note: “Sounder” is the only G-rated movie I know of in which a character uses the word “peckerwood.” I know MPAA ratings were weird back then (there’s no way “True Grit” and “Planet of the Apes” would get G ratings today–hell, their remakes are PG-13!), but that made me laugh! I mean, “what the hell” and “damn it,” I knew you could get away with, but “peckerwood”?! Wow.

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