The world this celebrated director conjures up is about as far as you can get from traditional or contemporary, what with the story centering bravely on the trials and tribulations of the Morgan’s, a family of sharecroppers overcoming impossible bad luck during the Great Depression. It’s a tale full of rough edges, no-holds-barred sadness, and a complete lack of pity. The often unsympathetic tone the film takes is a bit shocking at times (no stranger would dare hit a child they didn’t know today, not without severe consequences), but is still dependable and accurate. Sounder preaches its morals and values in a subversive, non-offensive way that is never false or cloying. The story watches eldest son David Lee (Kevin Hooks, in an introspective film debut) grow into a man while learning the hardest life lessons from his wise, yet misguided parents Rebecca and Nathan Lee (Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield; the first African-American man and woman to be simultaneously nominated for acting Oscars). His parents see the spark in the young man’s mind and they push him into a life of education rather than work. The journey of the young man stays at the center of the film, letting the viewer peek into a world long past, exposing all of its cracks in a believable way.
Sounder deals with some very heavy issues (including the horrifying, inhumane and unfair physical and emotionally cruelties most black people of the time were expected to silently tolerate) without becoming bogged down with cliché-riddled sermonizing. Feeding your hungry family during hard times, working hard labor jobs at a young age, and love in the most dour of circumstances are some of the universal themes Ritt and his great cast touch on. They remain equally relevant to families today, more than thirty years later. At the core, the film is a story about the love and loyalty shared between parents and children and the ties that bond a family together – a closeness that often requires great sacrifice and strength. Rebecca, for example, must learn to let go of her son as he readies to leave the nest. Selfishly, she wonders aloud “who will help me around the house? Who will help me out in the field?” while he looks on with disappointment.
Tyson, as a flawed (but fundamentally wholesome) mother of three, shies away from playing her character for cheap sympathy or dignified suffering: Rebecca is scared for her family’s well-being, and must endure long days of back-breaking work to be the sole provider once her husband is arrested for stealing meat to feed them. She is strong without being overbearing, sensual, and wise without being particularly sophisticated. Her pride is visible when scolding two racist officers who will not allow her to speak with her imprisoned husband (classily tossing off the barb “You got yourself a real low-life job, Mr. Sheriff”; an offense that in is very daring given the potential consequences). Winfield too creates an indelible character: sometimes selfish, other times brutish. As Nathan Lee, he imparts wisdom to his son; but also makes sure to tell him that he is loved: something that is conveyed imaginatively with dialogue and nuance rather than through present-day neuroses or an uninspired musical extravaganza. It’s Sounder‘s strongest selling point.