Sounder, a beautiful, moving family film released on September 24, 1972, came out at a time when the so-called blaxploitation film craze was in full swing.
Based on the novel by William H. Armstrong, the film centers on the coming of age of the son of a family of black sharecroppers in the Depression-era south after his father is imprisoned for stealing food.
The film stars a first rate cast with Paul Winfield as the father Nathan Lee Morgan, Cicely Tyson as his wife Rebecca Morgan, and Kevin Hooks as the oldest son David Lee Morgan. Set in Louisiana, Sounder is about the poor and hungry family of black sharecropper Nathan Lee Morgan. They are poverty-stricken, but are close and tight knit. Nathan’s son David enjoys hunting with his father and the family dog Sounder. Times become so hard that eventually Nathan steals a loaf of bread to feed his family, but he is arrested and sentenced to a work camp. David’s mother, Rebecca, realizes that David is responsible to help look after his siblings. He ultimately sets out to locate where his father is being held and becomes involved in a school for black children where he learns facts that boost his self-esteem.
Sounder made history by being the first time a black film received a “G” rating. There was no sex, drugs or swearing in the film. Many didn’t think the film would fare well with blaxploitation films being popular at the time, but it did very well at the box office and critics everywhere hailed it as one of the finest films to come out in years. Of interesting note is that it was brutally hot the summer the movie was being filmed. The cast members were eaten alive by mosquitoes and Winfield caught a terrible case of hay fever from all the pollen. Nevertheless, making the film was a rewarding and moving experience for all involved.
At the time of the film’s release, Winfield stated that there are markets for both the blaxploitation movies and family-oriented movies. “Hopefully, Sounder will mark a turning point in not only the quality of Black pictures, but will also serve as an example of what is possible. And Sounder is proving that a G-rated film can sell, too.”
Tyson has always been known for taking a stand in the type of film roles black actresses were presented. She would only do films of quality, had meaning, and would not degrade black people–particularly black women. After playing two early film roles as a prostitute, she refused to play any more roles of that calibre and would only do quality roles that elevated black women. Her stance was highly praised and respected.
As well as being a success at the box office and critics, Sounder was also a hit with the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences. Sounder was nominated for four Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Actor (Paul Winfield) Best Actress (Cicely Tyson) and Best Adapted Screenplay.
Tyson shared the Best Actress nomination with another black actress, Diana Ross for Lady Sings the Blues. Unfortunately, both of them lost to Liza Minnelli for her role in Cabaret. Many at the time felt that Minnelli’s performance in Cabaret was softball compared to the strong, riveting performances by Tyson and Ross.
Winfield lost in the Best Actor category to Marlon Brando for his role in The Godfather (Brando had a Native American woman named Sacheen Littlefeather accept the Oscar for him to speak out against the portrayal of Native Americans in the movies). Sounder lost the Best Picture Oscar to The Godfather.
Despite losing in all categories, the fact that Sounder was nominated for four Oscars is a testament to the wide recognition of a black film that focuses on family unity and endurance despite hard times. Although the blaxploitation film craze continued up until 1976, Sounder’s popularity eventually helped break open doors to get other black family oriented films made such as Claudine, Five On The Blackhand Side, and others. Indeed, Sounder helped Hollywood realized that there was money to be made in black family film fare as well as comedies and not just the “shoot em up, sexualized, get The Man”-type black films.
Stephen McMillian is a journalist, writer, actor, filmmaker, dancer, Soul Train historian and soul music historian.