Louisiana, 1933, the Great Depression. Nathan Lee Morgan (Paul Winfield) is a black sharecropper, married to Rebecca (Cicely Tyson). They have three children, the oldest of which is David Lee (Kevin Hooks). Times are hard and when Nathan Lee steals food from his neighbour to feed the family, he is arrested and sent away to a prison camp. Rebecca and the children struggle to survive. David Lee is determined to find his father...
Leaving aside those films for which no copies exist or which are tied up in litigation, a film can disappear for other reasons. At least in the UK, Sounder is a case in point. A Best Picture Oscar nominee, it did have a British cinema release (passed by the BBFC in October 1972). But no television showings, nor any video or DVD release. The only British showing I'm aware of in the last two decades was at the National Film Theatre nearly twenty years ago. Needless to say, the film did very well in its native country, and spawned a reputedly very good sequel, 1976's Sounder, Part 2 which if anything is even more difficult to see.
Two thoughts come to mind: one of rights, the other of cinematic fashion. Although Sounder was distributed by a major (Fox, whose logo is still on the front of the feature on this DVD) it was made by an independent company (Radnitz/Mattel). Presumably Fox's distribution rights have lapsed, and no-one in the UK picked them up – and that would also explain why this DVD is a region-free release from Koch Vision rather than a Region 1 from Fox. Fashion is less easy to define. Nowadays, however well-intentioned it might be, a film with an almost entirely black cast directed by a white arouses suspicion. Admittedly, back in 1972 there weren't many black directors working for the majors (Gordon Parks, Melvin Van Peebles, anyone else?). A decade later, Steven Spielberg and Norman Jewison received criticism for taking on specifically black subject matter in The Color Purple and A Soldier's Story respectively. And don't forget that Jewison was at one point going to make Malcolm X before Spike Lee took the project over. Nowadays, there are more directors of colour in Hollywood – including the young star of Sounder, Kevin Hooks, who directed a TV movie remake in 2003. I don't necessarily believe that personal experience trumps everything – to take a less sensitive example, I don't agree that Platoon is superior to Apocalypse Now or Full Metal Jacket just because Oliver Stone served in Vietnam when Francis Coppola and Stanley Kubrick didn't. For me people should be able to make films out of their own direct experience – given the variables of talent, imagination, empathy and research in whichever combination. However I'm aware that race is clearly a vexed issue and so is alleged “appropriation” of others' experiences.
But Martin Ritt directed Sounder. Ritt was very much in the liberal wing of Hollywood, and some of his lesser films mistake positivism (also out of fashion nowadays – dark and edgy is in) for sentimentality. A good example of that is his final film, Stanley & Iris, which bears as much resemblance to its source, Pat Barker's novel Union Street, as the respective titles do to each other. Yet Ritt could do harder if he needed: just look at Hud and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold for proof. Sounder falls between the two extremes. John Alonzo's Scope camerawork makes the American South look very pretty and there's a sense that the worst aspects of the Depression – not to mention racism – are being softpedalled for its intended family audience. (I've not read the original book by William H. Armstrong, but the film is apparently toned down from it. Another difference is that the characters are named in the film but not in the book.) Yet the hardship is there in the background, while Ritt and screenwriter Lonne Elder III (also Oscar-nominated) place the emphasis on the family's ability to stay together, and the quiet dignity of the adults. Ultimately, Sounder is a coming-of-age story, and a father-son story. Sounder, by the way, is the family dog.
Although Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson were both Oscar-nominated, the film is held together by Kevin Hooks. There's a half-hour section in the middle of the film where David Lee goes in search of his father, and meets a teacher (Janet Maclachlan) who strikes the spark of learning in him. Hooks gives a capable performance, but in a way the Oscar voters were right: when they're on-screen, it's Winfield and Tyson you're drawn to, both beautifully underplayed. Tyson's character tends to be marginalised by the emphasis of the storyline (as do the other two children), but she has a moment late on in the film that Pauline Kael rightly singled out in her review of the film. I won't spoil it for you, but you'll know which one I mean.
Sounder is a well-crafted film in a classical, somewhat old-fashioned way: camerawork, score (by blues musician Taj Mahal, who also plays the role of Ike), production and costume design are all excellent. Possibly a little slow for today's younger audiences, it's still a film that doesn't deserve to vanish into obscurity.
Koch Vision's DVD of Sounder is dual-layered and encoded for all regions. It opens with a trailer for the 1961 film Misty, which is 4:3 and looks exactly like what it is: a pan and scan from a Scope original.
Fortunately, that's not the case with the main feature, which is in a ratio of 2.35:1 and is anamorphically enhanced. It's a little soft and grainy, and lacking shadow detail in some scenes (for example, the opening scene which takes place at night). In short, an adequate transfer that might have passed muster five years back but is a long way from state of the art now.
The soundtrack is the original mono. It's fine as far as it goes, but if you find the heavy Southern accents trying you're out of luck – there are no subtitles provided.
All that remains to be mentioned is the theatrical trailer, which is 2.35:1 non-anamorphic and runs 1:41. It contains quite a few plot spoilers.
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