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Sounder
Original movie poster for the film Sounder.jpg
Original poster
Directed by Martin Ritt
Produced by Robert B. Radnitz
Screenplay by Lonne Elder III
Starring Cicely Tyson
Paul Winfield
Kevin Hooks
Taj Mahal
Janet MacLachlan
Music by Taj Mahal
Cinematography John A. Alonzo
Editing by Sid Levin
Studio Radnitz/Mattel Productions, Inc.
Distributed by 20th Century Fox
Release date(s) September 24, 1972 (1972-09-24)
Running time 105 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $1.9 million
Money made $16.9 million

Sounder is a 1972 American DeLuxe Color drama film in Panavision directed by Martin Ritt, and starring Cicely Tyson, Paul Winfield, and Kevin Hooks. The film was adapted by Lonne Elder III from the 1970 Newbery Medal-winning novel Sounder by William H. Armstrong. A story concerning an African-American family in the Deep South during the Great Depression, the film was both a critical and box office success.

Plot

The Morgan family live as sharecroppers in 1933 Louisiana, raising sugar cane for their white landlord. David Lee, the oldest son, is a bright boy who loves to hunt with his father Nathan Lee and their dog Sounder, but is only able to attend school sporadically in between helping his mother Rebecca on the farm. Nathan and David lose the raccoon they are hunting one evening, leaving the family without meat to eat, but the children awaken the next morning to the smell of ham cooking and happily eat it. When they return home after a community baseball game, which Nathan helps his team win, they find the sheriff and his deputies waiting to arrest Nathan for stealing the ham from a nearby smokehouse. As they take him away, Sounder runs after their wagon and one of the deputies shoots him. The injured Sounder runs away, and David cannot find him. He looks for him for days, but is unable to continue the search because with their father gone, he and his little brother and sister must help Rebecca farm and harvest the crops. Rebecca shares her faith with David that Sounder is alive and will return home eventually.

The family is restricted from visiting Nathan at the local jail while he awaits shipment to the work camp. Only David is allowed to visit, and he brings a chocolate cake that Rebecca baked for Nathan, and they enjoy a piece together despite their worries over not knowing where Nathan will be taken. Mrs. Boatwright, a sympathetic local woman who employs Rebecca to do her laundry and often gives the children books to read, promises David she will find out the location of the work camp Nathan has been taken to. When the sheriff refuses to tell her, she goes through his filing cabinet to find the information. Despite the sheriff's threats, she tells the Morgan family that Nathan has been taken to the distant Wishbone prison camp and helps Rebecca plot the route there on the map. Sounder returns home, though he does not bark like he used to, and accompanies David on a long journey on foot to find the camp and try to visit his father.

David makes it to the Wishbone camp, but is unable to find Nathan and is ignored by the guards when he inquires after him. When he tries to ask the prisoners, a guard strikes his hand with an iron rod and chases him off the camp. On his journey home, he comes across a school with all black students, where the kind, outspoken teacher, Miss Camille, bandages his injured hand and has him stay at her house and attend class at the school for several days before he starts for home again. One night she shares books from her collection about important African-American historical figures with him and reads to him from the work of W.E.B. DuBois.

After returning home, David longs to attend the distant school, but has largely given up on the dream when one day Sounder runs barking like he used to greet the returning Nathan, who was released from the work camp early after his leg was injured in a dynamite explosion. Seeing his father's depleted strength, David resolves to stay and work the farm in his place, but after learning of the school, Nathan is adamant that David go to attend it full-time. They have a heart-to-heart about how Nathan wishes for his children to escape the dead-end life of sharecropping and aspire to better things, and the next day, Rebecca and his siblings cheerfully see David off as he and Nathan head into town to buy clothes and school supplies, accompanied by Sounder.

Cast

  • Cicely Tyson as Rebecca Morgan
  • Paul Winfield as Nathan Lee Morgan
  • Kevin Hooks as David Lee Morgan
  • Carmen Matthews as Mrs. Rita Boatwright
  • Taj Mahal as Ike Phillips
  • James Best as Sheriff Charlie Young
  • Eric Hooks as Earl Morgan
  • Yvonne Jarrell as Josie Mae Morgan
  • Sylvia "Kuumba" Williams as Harriet
  • Ted Airhart as Mr. Perkins
  • Richard Durham as Perkins' Foreman
  • Wendell Brumfield as Deputy #1
  • Al Bankston as Deputy #2
  • Myrl Sharkey (credited as Merle Sharkey) as Teacher
  • Inez Durham as Court Clerk
  • Judge William Thomas Bennett as Judge
  • Reverend Thomas N. Phillips as Pastor
  • Carl Bruser as Wagon Driver
  • Jerry Leggio, Jr. as Guard #1
  • Pete Goff as Guard #2
  • Walker L. Chaney as Guard #3
  • Roy Idom as Guard #4
  • Randy Wilson as Convict #1
  • Isaac Greggs as Convict #2
  • Jackie Spears as Girl #1
  • Porter Mathews as Boy #1
  • Timothy Smith as Boy #2
  • Spencer Bradford as Clarence
  • Janet MacLachlan as Camille Johnson

Soundtrack

Taj Mahal recorded a soundtrack to the film, released in 1972 by Columbia Records. According to music journalist Robert Christgau, it was "the first soundtrack ever patterned after a field recording", featuring a "suite/montage/succession of hums, moans, claps, and plucked fragments", all performed in the key of the gospel blues song "Needed Time" by Lightnin' Hopkins. Fellow critic Greil Marcus regarded it as Mahal's "most eloquent music", although Christgau said "even Greil doesn't know anybody who agrees. I've always regarded field recordings as study aids myself." He gave the soundtrack album a C-plus in Christgau's Record Guide: Rock Albums of the Seventies (1981).

Sequel

A sequel, Part 2, Sounder, was released in 1976.

Television version

In 2003, ABC's Wonderful World of Disney aired a new film adaptation, reuniting two actors from the original: Kevin Hooks (who played the son) directed, and Paul Winfield (who played the father) played the role of the teacher. Walt Disney Home Video has released the television version on DVD.

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