Registering the Registry: Sounder (1972)
Welcome back to Registering the Registry, where we consider and review the films inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry by merit of their cultural, historical, and aesthetic qualities! Today, a lesser-known installment from the New Hollywood period of radical form shifts and societally conscious films of the 70s. Chronicling a southern black family’s struggles against an injust and uncaring world, we’ve got Paul Winfield, Cicely Tyson, and Kevin Hooks in Martin Ritt’s 1972 literary adaptation Sounder! Let’s not tarry, and get right to the heart of the matter!
With Sounder’s induction, all eligible films nominated for Best Picture at the 45th Academy Awards are now within the National Film Registry. Jan Troell’s The Emigrants, alas, will have to wait until Sweden’s own film bodies designate a similar registry for their important cinematic artifacts. This honor, however, does not mean Sounder is due for any halfway decent treatment anytime soon. The other three nominees — The Godfather, Cabaret, and Deliverance — all remain popular fixtures of a film buff’s 70s canon, with the first shining bright amongst the vaulted generalized list of Greatest Movies Ever Made. As such you can find them no trouble in glorious BluRay wherever you go, rent them in sparkling 1080p or Ultra HD with their proper resolutions intact. Sounder, by contrast, has not seen a proper DVD release in years, never mind any higher-quality format, and all options for streaming and rental online to the last offer crummy 480p, 4:3 cropped, heavily tattered third-generation or worse scans of a copy of a duplicate, even if you pay for HD. I had to go third-party to watch the film anywhere close to its intended quality and resolution, and even then I swapped between multiple copies to deal with sections muted to avoid copyright strikes over one Taj Mahal song. Once nominated for the biggest prize in Hollywood, alongside Best Actor and Actress nominations for two black performers in the same year and the first Best Adapted Screenplay nod for a black screenwriter, now treated worse than fare like Blacula and The Legend of Nigger Charlie, which one can easily find in much better condition.
It is frustrating. It is galling to cover these works hailed as The Important American Films, read the articles by mainstream sources absolutely gushing over how great it is we’ve finally taken steps to preserve a Star Wars or Lord of the Rings picture, read the comments of people snorting derisively because it took too long for films like WALL-E or A Nightmare on Elm Street to get their due, and yet not find a single soul lamenting the way Richard E. Norman’s filmography is all but lost, or Requiem-29’s place in distribution limbo, or how a film like Sounder — venerated in its time as proof audiences wanted to see black characters in situations not driven by sex and indulgent violence — is nowadays sold in beaten, degraded form while the sellers call it high quality. These matters are utter failings when we hold a parade in honor of those selections from the Library of Congress with the longest shadows and broadest profiles year after year as the films which actually NEED preservation or intervention from someone with means are left as footnotes far below the byline, if they merit mention at all. Sounder made the headline in LoC’s press release this year, and still I only found out on my own time there wasn’t a single complete copy in decent state available anywhere without delving into piracy more serious than typing “sounder 1972 full movie” into YouTube’s search bar. The films of the Registry are important because of the impact they left on the American character, how they’ve spoken to the American spirit in both their initial release and the years afterwards. Why do we bother with any of this if preservation so oft means someone somewhere has an original copy locked in a deep dark safe far from the general public’s prying eyes?
Best I have is we must bother because we must bother. Practical cynicism, active nihilism-type deal. If nobody who’s paid to cover and care about these matters cares to report on the sorry state of availability on the less-loved entrants each year for fear of losing clicks and audience retention, I can at least stake my flag and shout it loud as I can; and if my voice is too quiet and my reach too short for anyone to listen, I at least tried, which is more than anyone at Variety or The Hollywood Reporter can say.
Anyhow. Sounder is based off William H. Armstrong’s 1969 young adult book of the same name, a Newbery Medal winner about a young black boy from a sharecropping family in an indeterminate time and place. The only named character in the whole novel is the family’s booming-voiced hunting dog from whom the book draws its name, all other players only referred to as the man, the woman, the boy, the teacher, so on and so on. Sounder’s definite identity and titular importance doesn’t imply constant presence, though, for the second of eight chapters sees the boy’s father arrested over stealing a ham to feed his family during a fallow period and Sounder shot cross the head on racing after his master. Armstrong’s work is defined by the difficulty of remaining strong and steady in a world determined to take and lash for seemingly no reason at all, long passages dedicated to the boy searching for Sounder and theorizing how he might’ve survived in face of evidence he probably didn’t, or visiting his father in prison and breaking down at mistreatment by the guard, walking the county on his lonesome in search of labor camp after labor camp and a chance to just glimpse his father again. Stories from the Bible as told by the boy’s mother appear as parables to the main story on the regular, though filtered through an illiterate and impoverished child’s understanding of the world. What matters most is whether or not the constant cruelty and uncaring callousness the boy encounters will distance him from the family he does have, darken his heart and harden him against a proper Christian way of living. Through it all (in part thanks to the interest of a kindly schoolteacher he meets along the way), the boy does hold his center, such that when both Sounder and his father return home severely maimed by their trials, stagger on for a time, and ultimately expire in their turns, he is able to stave off bitterness and do what’s necessary for his family, what’s right for himself: keep on living and growing with a belief he can make a better life somehow.
In translating the story for general audiences, New York theatre veteran screenwriter Lonne Elder III and noted left-leaning humanist director Martin Ritt do soften Armstrong’s story substantially, in ways only natural for a book-to-film transition. A live performative element demands definite place and identity, so the film is set in 1933 Louisiana with Paul Winfield as father Nathan Lee Morgan, Cicely Tyson as mother Rebecca Morgan, and Kevin Hooks as son David Lee Morgan. Practically all overtly religious talk is gone out the movie version, hardly a mention of Kings David or Solomon to be found, the only lingering remnant of an explicitly Christian story being some matter-of-course visits to church and a joke about God trying to get into white churches for nearly 2000 years. Though the arrest and dog shooting and tribulations with jail and work camps persist, they’re preceded by a half-hour act of the family’s normal routine in happier times, and, importantly, neither Nathan Lee nor Sounder die. Heck, the dog hardly seems half so wounded much as spooked by the shot. Sounder in celluloid is a film concerned with finding goodness in the world while emphasizing the importance of communal and family support, the power of education by a supportive hand, the sacrifices around someone getting out and striving to make that better life. It is, by my read, a softer, gentler spin on material which felt hard and sturdy on the page, which can make a tricky proposition in lesser hands.
This may sound a wind-up to my saying I don’t like Sounder or feel cooler towards the film than general reception, so let me assure: this strikes as an intelligent means of ensuring the same basic message can survive in a medium whose form and typical audience are not as receptive to the bitter medicine of the source material. It’s not like Elder and Ritt shy from the harsh realities of a black family’s existence in 1930s Louisiana. The opening sequence of Nathan and David hunting possum mixes father-son bonding with indications the elder Morgan must work to avoid letting his frustrations spill out on his son when their failure to catch the critter means not enough food this week. Our one glimpse into David’s school life shows a teacher who instructs by rote reading to the whole class and makes a point of humiliating David when he shows up late after helping with chores and hitching his way over. There’s a constant tension in Winfield and Tyson’s early interactions which speaks to a knowledge they’re only even this well off so long as the richer elements in their community consider them useful, and a repeating visual motif of characters unevenly separated by beams and columns running cross the screen. Practically the only extended sequence of the family having a good time and enjoying life while playing baseball and chat-singing with Taj Mahal’s family friend comes right before the arrest for maximum contrast, all others before marked by weariness, or wariness, or work where it shouldn’t be necessary, or tired looks indicative of a knowledge the boot is about to drop, just not quite sure when.
After Nathan goes behind bars, the film intensifies its hardships several factors over. Tyson performs this quiet yet powerful scene of Rebecca simply trying to get through a trip to the grocer’s while the owner transitions from feigning sympathy to haranguing her over the family’s debts and who’s gonna work the fields when cropping season comes and how it’s gonna reflect on HIM when one of his workers isn’t there and people start asking questions and won’t you look at me woman, with Tyson visibly measuring her every action and word to get in a rebuke against his behavior without going too far. Winfield, largely absent until the very end of the movie, in turn features in a sequence of David visiting his father with a cake broken up by a casually jerkish jailer, wherein Nathan puts on his best brave face and acts like everything will be alright for his son, only to pull himself up to the high window for a fleeting glimpse of his family, realize how low he’s sunken before his child, and slump in defeat to ask they not to come back and see him like this. As to Hooks, while he doesn’t deliver any standout “play this at the Oscars and show ’em why we nominated you” moments during the segments dedicated to his search, he does serve as perspective character on some notably difficult bits. Thinking chiefly of the part where Carmen Mathews’ kindly (but white and wealthier) neighbor attempts to help him track down his father’s location, only to get caught out by James Best’s sweaty hardline sheriff and suddenly turns distant to David under threat of having her reputation ruined for helping a black family. The long treks to places where David thinks his father might be imprisoned work better when they take a substantial amount of dialogue-free film (if padded down somewhat by Sounder’s presence at his side and Mahal’s lyricism on the soundtrack), and the film rightly retains the parts where grown men guarding the camps lash out at a boy with force completely disproportionate to his age and offense.
All this to say Sounder is only a lighter work by comparison with its literary twin, where anonymity of person and non-specificity of place made the same type of story play with heavier blows, and the goal of testing the boy’s character through these tribulations generated a highly melancholic tone. Even outside the matters of plot and story beats, John A. Alonzo’s camerawork frequently isolates characters in wide outdoor shots to emphasize how easy it is to let the world make you feel crushingly alone, and the retention of a child’s perspective further firms the sense of a world whose cruel and arbitrary ways seem all the moreso absent the contextual why. With it established a friendly opening and close does not mean the film pulls any punches where it counts, let’s talk just why the shift in priorities works to the picture’ favor.
You must understand, where the film seeks to portray less hostile surroundings for its characters, it does so by pulling a friendlier, more sociable manner out’ve opposition. Scenes of the family dealing with their plight on their lonesome are cut with scenes of their community and local leaders offering support and solidarity where no such examples exist in the book. The aforementioned scene featuring Mathews gives way to the character sticking her neck out on David’s behalf anyways, no matter what it might do to her community standing. David’s encounter with Janet McLachlan’s teacher isn’t simply a one-on-one private relationship as in the book, but rather an entire extended sequence of the boy sitting in on her class, participating with the lesson, interacting with the other students and standing up for one child the others call a liar. There’s a far greater sense leaving home to pursue her teachings means a continuing sense of community and belonging in addition to a good education, and so when Nathan comes limping home determined to keep working for his family despite his injuries, there’s also a deeper impression David leaving home is a worthwhile sacrifice. The final reel’s monologue is easily the best part of the film, wherein Winfield sits down with Hooks and encourages his son to take the opportunity because even if his staying means the family can better thrive at their present status quo, his leaving means they’ll have given one of their own a chance at something better than they could ever offer, just a father who cannot physically stand so tall and strong as before proving himself a big man who doesn’t want to see all the trials and tribulations caused by his absence go to waste. Importantly, while certain of his reminders are in the source text, the movie stresses a much clearer emphasis this is not a break from David’s old life, merely an expansion — he can still come home whenever he needs.
The medicine is not half so bitter as Armstrong writ, but the sweetening is not artificial nor misguided. Elder and Ritt look on this book about remaining sturdy and true despite life’s miseries, they see it concludes with deaths demanding extended focus in a performed medium guaranteed to hit extra hard when we see the father and dog pass, and so they cut the dosage to highlight a less prevalent aspect of the world’s cruelties. Hardship is not only something found in the total, all-consuming loss brought about by absence and death; hardship is in the constant just an ounce below what you can’t carry weight of poverty, the way others will look on and treat you worse for the color of your skin, the little indignities of not knowing and not being considered worth telling. Life was already grinding the Morgan family before their patriarch was arrested and trusty dog shotgunned in the face, so when these happenings aggravate existing gradual injuries upon their heads, the solution must be an equally amplified version of what already kept them going. Ties that bind across family, friendships, community, shared religion, shared education, the natural human trend to clump together and draw strength from our brethren when going gets rough and you can’t stand on your lonesome. In a novel of amorphous detail, individual personhood takes well to boosting reminders of inner support and personal responsibility for remaining steadfast. In a film where you can see the sweat rolling down foreheads, feel the heat of a pounding Louisiana summer, watch as a man with a bad leg repeatedly ducks under a slow-spinning wood bar until one mistimed duck knocks him down for the count where before he could take it no problem, these figures are better bolstered by scenes in a story reminding us they are not living through this alone.
One has to know their audience and adapt to suit. It’s not just that Sounder the movie would release to a movie-going public who has, historically, not taken entirely kindest to works keyed in gutpunch without some consolation, doubly so when presented as heartwarming family dramas. It’s that a young adult reading experience is one defined by alone time for readers who often want to hear they can stand on their own two feet no matter what, while a general wide theatrical release has to contend with both younger children and grown adults who like being told togetherness is good and having their communal time rewarded with reminders of such. Armstrong’s material can and does work to affect the same emotions with different priorities, the same starting points used for conclusions about surviving hardships thanks to what you learned in the one and surviving because people love and care about you in another. What’s important is the audience understands and internalizes the possibility of continuing and even thriving despite an uncaring, oft-bigoted world. Given Sounder’s 17 million box office take over a 2 million dollar budget and its contemporary accolades as one of the best films of the year (the National Board of Review placed it fourth), there’s no doubt Elder and Ritt’s soft and steady approach worked. This success marks another reason I’m so frustrated Sounder isn’t properly available — past its historical import and awards trivium, the message it imparts is one people deserve to see and hear in clearest, cleanest quality for comparison and contrast against its source material, as loud and affecting in 2022 as 1972. World needs all the reminders of wellsprings all round us it can get, so why can’t Sounder’s induction come with a brighter spotlight on its virtues?
All well and good to constantly talk of revolution as we do round these parts, but if you lack the knowledge and wisdom to maintain what you have in the before and after times, it won’t do a lick of good. The people must have reminders of what they’re living and striving for, and they oughtn’t need look in odd corners to find those intact.
‘Nother week down! Always feels good to complete these articles and ask your input, so what’d you think? About Sounder the book, or the movie, or Ritt’s career, or those of the actors, or the story’s message, whatever you like! Leave a comment and look forward to the next one is all I’m saying! When we reconvene in two weeks, it’s Robert Altman and Elliott Gould reinventing/deconstructing Raymond Chandler’s great literary detective Phillip Marlow in a loose but highly acclaimed adaptation of The Long Goodbye from 1973! Keeping on with the New Hollywood theme we are! Amazon and Vudu have it for rental or purchase, so check it out and I’ll see you then!
Registering the Registry is sponsored by Adept7777 and Dan Stalcup on Patreon.