Revisiting Family-Themed ‘Sounder’ (1972)

Last week, I attended the world premiere restoration of a 1972 movie directed by Martin Ritt about a dog and a boy and the parents who guide and watch over them in the uplifting, family-themed Sounder. Introduced at the TCM Classic Film Festival in the grand, historic Grauman’s Chinese Theater, this is not a modern movie, so if your favorite movies have scenes that rarely last longer than a few seconds and are loaded with sound, action and special effects, Sounder is probably not for you.

However, for literate or literary movie-lovers (Sounder is based upon a short children’s novel) who welcome an opportunity to immerse in rich stories and plots with interesting characters, Sounder resonates.

Pictures of a father and son hunting raccoon in Louisiana in 1933 come over a title as they head home with the title’s loyal and expressive hound dog. Essentially, this slow, purposeful movie dramatizes proper parenting. The father, played by Paul Winfield in a physically demanding, exhaustive role, transforms over the course of the small-scale film. He hunts, he struggles and he worries. Providing for his poor, black family on a Depression-era farm that’s dependent upon a decent crop and his wife’s freelance laundry business is hard work. The farmer does what he thinks he needs to do to feed his family. He’s willing to pay the consequences and not a bit more.

When he’s arrested for stealing food for his family, he goes along with being handcuffed by the racist Southern sheriff but he won’t sanction watching a policeman execute his loyal dog Sounder. In this sense, Sounder sounds an alarm for his master to make radical change to liberate his children from poverty. Change is gradual in coming, which makes Sounder more rewarding.

Bringing continuity to the story in a role best understood as a subtle but pivotal part, Cicely Tyson plays Rebecca, the man’s wife and the boy’s (and other two children’s) mother. Rebecca’s depth of love for her husband and children is as natural as the Louisiana heat is sweltering. Rebecca’s dress may be tattered but it’s merely a contrast to her carefully stitched method of parenting, from her choreographed routine for feeding the kids to her efficient laundry business.

As their son in his motion picture debut, Kevin Hooks (who went on to appear as one of the Carver High basketball players on The White Shadow on CBS) is the film’s center. He walks to a schoolhouse, where he studies writing by Mark Twain. He’s clearly an intelligent boy. His parents see and acknowledge this; his dad in the complex way a father can notice a son’s potential and his mother in the simple way a mother can mirror a son’s best qualities.

Faced with poverty and the threat of imminent destitution, his mother must learn to compose herself for the sake of her child’s development. The father, facing a forced absence from his family and its aftermath, must learn to filter his thoughts and control the measure and tone of his actions. The bright boy is their beneficiary.

Parents aren’t the only ones to notice the child in the family. One of Sounder‘s most complex and endearing characters is Mrs. Boatwright, the family’s most loyal customer, a white woman who takes notice of the boy’s use of his mind. She bestows upon him The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas. For most whites in the Depression-era American South, this act of kindness might be a bit too bold.

Not for this older woman, who is later accused without cause of harboring improper affection for the boy. The woman of the mind, 40 years ahead of her time, gives the book with the stern condition that she expects the boy not just to read it, but to think about it, which is to say she wants him to discuss what the novel means.

All of this attention to the first-born child in a struggling farm family accentuates the powerful if subtle role that family dog Sounder, wounded by the diverted gunshot, plays as he goes missing. Sounder, a happy and bounding hound dog that howls when his master is taken away, is the salve that’s kept the father in good spirits. But family toil is not without joy, as they gather to listen to a friend sing or to play baseball. Sounder may have run off. But the loyalty, laughter and joy he represents remains.

The family will need to draw from it, too, without a husband and father to hunt, gather and provide sustenance. Besides the chatter of small-minded townspeople, the sheriff refuses to contextualize rules and let Rebecca visit her husband in jail before he’s sent to the penitentiary. When the lawman asserts that he “must follow orders”, Rebecca sits with her anger in silence. But she departs with a judgment of her own, tying him to what she rightly pegs as his “low life job”, putting the sheriff and his ‘loyalty’ poster in context.

Doing without dad is Sounder‘s wider turning point. It’s the opening arc to see the boy, whose name is David, setting his own terms without his father to challenge, call and guide him. David starts to take charge when he looks for Sounder. Passing a Confederate war memorial, David brings a cake his mother’s baked to the jail. David works the farmland for sharecropping, cleans wounds, uses his mind with Mrs. Boatwright, if not as she’d intended, and David learns to get what he wants.

This is when Sounder goes around to become David’s journey. A sister and brother, mother and father and, of course, Sounder, serve the turn as it wanders and fans out to the world at large. Director Martin Ritt lets David’s odyssey linger among willow trees and singing insects as the boy looks for his dad. Amid rain, cattle, fog and a gleaming white plantation, David finds what he’s not looking for, which is what tends to happen in the most absorbing tales of the child roaming strange new lands, such as Earl Hamner’s The Homecoming and L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz.

David discovers a mulatto teacher named Camille Johnson, who teaches him about Harriet Tubman and a black American Revolutionary and other facts with no relation to stories by Mark Twain or, for that matter, Alexandre Dumas.

As if in payment for Miss Johnson’s lessons, and certainly as her properly earned reward, David speaks up. In particular, he does so on behalf of a poor, bewildered and brave boy named Clarence, who is singled out for taunting by his peers. This is Sounder‘s finer turning point. Again, it’s rendered on a quiet, natural scale as the black boy prepares for speaking up in the world at large. Tenderly, if no less sternly, Miss Johnson demonstrates to her visitor that his guilt is through no fault of the boy’s own.

A triumphant closeup the audience may not realize they’ve been waiting for comes on screen at last and Sounder serves an emotional, bookended moral to the story, which, in the end, beckons with a joyful and easy call for true, rational parenting.