Sounder is a simple story simply told, and holds simple, but profound, truths at its core that resonate long after the final frame has faded. It’s as timely now upon its DVD release (after an inexcusable absence) as it was upon its theatrical release in 1972. And yet there is an odd anachronistic feel to it, like it’s unmoored from any specific time period – its release year, even the year its set in (1932)—is timeless and immortal. It taps something universal that also cuts to the quick, and directly, of what it means to be human, and like the best of children’s literature and film, its appeal knows no age.
From the cover and the title, you might be forgiven for thinking that the film is about a boy and his dog (a hound named, oddly enough, Sounder), but this would be mostly inaccurate. The story, such as it is, is more of a coming of age tale about a boy and his father; a boy and the land he grows up in (rural Louisiana during the Depression); and a boy and the past of his race.
When sharecropper Nathan Lee Morgan is sentenced to prison for robbing food for his starving family, young David Lee becomes the de facto head of household, trying to keep the farm solvent along with his younger siblings and his mother. As the summer progresses, David Lee’s yearning to find and redeem his father sends him on a long journey across the countryside, trekking through the poorest and roughest corners of the rural South. The journey becomes a rite of passage, almost like an Aboriginal walkabout, and if it’s a classic coming of age set up, archetypical and predictable, it is no less affecting.
The true strength of Sounder lay not so much in its story anyway, as in the depths and complexities of the actors, their subtle actions and movements, and their faces. There is a sounding (a play on the title, “to sound”, measure depth) being taken here – a probing of depths, a measuring of fathoms – that only works because of the commitment and transcending performances of the main leads, especially young Kevin Hooks as David Lee, and Cicely Tyson as the mother Rebecca Morgan. They inhabit the roles so perfectly, there’s such a palpable, lived-in feel suffusing each scene, the actors lost in this time and this place and these characters that… well, it just has to be seen to be fully apprehended, to be truly felt – words can’t really convey it.
And it’s in the physical environment of the film as well, in a world (long vanished) that becomes character itself. It’s in the dust on the roads, in the haze wafting up from the fields, in the sweat of brutal weather and brutal hardship. Watching Sounder, it’s almost hard not to start wiping sweat of your own brow, or taste the ripe air. The cinematography by John Alonzo (who was nominated for an Oscar for Chinatown, and probably should have been here) is remarkable for (again) its quiet simplicity and its subtle evocativeness.
So, apropos of everything and nothing, I happened to watch Sounder— a film that is somewhat confoundingly both very much about race and the African-American experience and not – on Martin Luther King Day, and spent a good portion of the next day (Obama’s Inauguration) thinking about the film, letting it soak in. Set in crushing poverty during the Depression in an institutionally racist South, the film seems like it should be politically charged, should have some sort of agenda with a capital A.
But despite its setting and its focus on the travails of a poor African-American family dealing with the long legacy of poverty and injustice, it really is about as far from a didactic, agenda driven film as you are likely to see. And yet, for this very fact – that it seems uninterested in some more general message – it’s all the more powerful, drawing its strength from its time bound specificity and somehow transcending this specificity at the same time. Again, I come back to its free floating universality, that it is about more than it is “about”, if that makes any sense.
Watching it now, during in the current sea change of events and what that means for race relations in America, Sounder seems almost quaint, and yet at the same time incredibly profound. From the year of it’s making (1972), it stands almost 40 years—on each side of its story—from the time its set in, and the present, and the changes and progress in those nearly 80 years are just stunning and nearly unfathomable when you step back and assess them. And yet, it also all makes perfect sense, and the film seems to stand astride these disparate eras, encompassing all in its prescience and binding everything together in a constant forward flow.
All of this is tough to get down on paper, and is really why watching and absorbing the film itself is its own best argument. It skirts heavy handedness with grace and subtly, insinuating itself into your subconscious and lighting things up from deep within, without you even being aware with it. You are left filled with a feeling of profound universal humanity. Sounder is something rare and wonderful, a message of simple gentle humaneness that needs to be shared and spread.