Sounder (1972)

G | 105 mins | Drama | October 1972

Director:

Martin Ritt

Writer:

Lonne Elder III

Producer:

Robert B. Radnitz

Cinematographer:

John Alonzo

Production Designer:

Walter Herndon

Production Company:

Radnitz/Mattel Productions, Inc.
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HISTORY

The onscreen credits include the written statement: "Taj Mahal's songs copyright 1972 Blackwood Music, Inc., courtesy of Columbia Records." The music credits end with the statement: "And special thanks to John Williams." A written credit reads: " Sounder was filmed in its entirety on location in St. Helena and East Feliciana Parishes in Louisiana. We wish to thank Sheriff Arch V. Doughty, Judge William T. Bennett, The St. Helena Parish School Board and all of the other people of these areas who made this film possible." Although the actress’ name is spelled “Merle Sharkey” in the onscreen credits, all contemporary sources list her as “Myrl.” Yvonne Jarrell's name is spelled "Jarrel" in the opening credits.
       As noted onscreen, Sounder was based on the 1969 novella of the same name by William H. Armstrong, which won a Newberry Award in 1970. In the book, the characters have no names. While much of the film’s action hews closely to book, in the novel the boy lives for a year with the teacher, and the action ends with the death of Sounder and the father, who was partially paralyzed by his accident. While the book centers on the family’s concern for the dog, screenwriter Lonne Elder III stated in a Nov 1972 interview in the New Watts Awakening that he preferred to focus on the family’s daily survival. In the interview, Elder noted that he at first refused the assignment, but producer Robert B. Radnitz and director Martin Ritt, who approached him after having seen one of his plays, convinced him to work with them. “I wanted to keep Sounder …accurate in its historical context, and ... More Less

The onscreen credits include the written statement: "Taj Mahal's songs copyright 1972 Blackwood Music, Inc., courtesy of Columbia Records." The music credits end with the statement: "And special thanks to John Williams." A written credit reads: " Sounder was filmed in its entirety on location in St. Helena and East Feliciana Parishes in Louisiana. We wish to thank Sheriff Arch V. Doughty, Judge William T. Bennett, The St. Helena Parish School Board and all of the other people of these areas who made this film possible." Although the actress’ name is spelled “Merle Sharkey” in the onscreen credits, all contemporary sources list her as “Myrl.” Yvonne Jarrell's name is spelled "Jarrel" in the opening credits.
       As noted onscreen, Sounder was based on the 1969 novella of the same name by William H. Armstrong, which won a Newberry Award in 1970. In the book, the characters have no names. While much of the film’s action hews closely to book, in the novel the boy lives for a year with the teacher, and the action ends with the death of Sounder and the father, who was partially paralyzed by his accident. While the book centers on the family’s concern for the dog, screenwriter Lonne Elder III stated in a Nov 1972 interview in the New Watts Awakening that he preferred to focus on the family’s daily survival. In the interview, Elder noted that he at first refused the assignment, but producer Robert B. Radnitz and director Martin Ritt, who approached him after having seen one of his plays, convinced him to work with them. “I wanted to keep Sounder …accurate in its historical context, and not go off on any present-day fantasies,” he added.
       Sounder marked the first collaboration between Radnitz and toy company Mattel. A Jul 1971 DV news item stated that Mattel would back eight productions with budgets of $750,000-$1,000,000 each. In Jan 1973, Radnitz told HR that Mattel gave him complete freedom in making the film and did not view a print until Sounder was completed.
       According to a modern source, the filmmakers originally intended to shoot in Macon, GA, but racial tensions caused them to move to Louisiana. In addition to location shooting in Louisiana’s East Feliciana and St. Helena parishes, an Aug 1971 DV news item mentions Baton Rouge as a location. Ritt hired many locals to play small roles, including 12-year-old Jarrell, who played "Josie Mae," Judge William Thomas Bennett and Reverend Thomas M. Phillips, the local Baptist preacher. Many of the locations were found on site, including the schoolhouse, sharecropper’s shack and church. As noted in a 20 Sep 1971 HR news item, a hurricane delayed the production for several days, due to flooding and high winds.
       In a modern interview, Ritt related that he took an eighty percent pay cut to direct the film. Kevin Hooks, who played “David Lee Morgan,” was the son of Negro Ensemble Company founder Robert Hooks. Kevin and his younger brother Eric made their feature film debuts in Sounder , as did blues singer Taj Mahal. In a Jan 2003 NYT article, Hooks stated that the scene of “Rebecca Morgan” running to meet the returning “Nathan Lee Morgan” was based on the finale of the 1925 King Vidor film The Big Parade (see above). The article designates that image as the film’s most famous.
       In May 1972, trade papers announced that Twentieth-Century Fox had made a deal to distribute Sounder , which studio president Gordon Stulberg called “a landmark production.” The film screened out of competition on 13 Aug 1972 at the Atlanta Film Festival. It had its premiere on 24 Sep in New York, then opened in Los Angeles on 12 Oct 1972. Over the following year, it was chosen as the American entry in several foreign film festivals, including those in Tehran, Moscow and Pakistan.
       Sounder received warm reviews and almost universal praise as a welcome antidote to the contemporaneous wave of black films, most of which were considered low quality, low budget and exploitative. The film’s sensitive, intelligent depiction of a loving family was hailed as a banner accomplishment for black filmmakers and audiences. A Sep 1972 DV article proclaimed that the picture had been “for good or ill, singled out to test whether the black audience will respond to serious films about the black experience rather than the ‘super black’ exploitation features.” As noted in the Washington Post review, despite popular skepticism that the film could be a financial success and the belief that “the black film market is exclusively an action and exploitation market,” the picture was a major box-office success. Made for less than $1 million, by Sep 1973, as reported in a LAT article, Sounder had made $15 million. A Sep 1973 LAT article stated that subsequent Radnitz/Mattel films, including Where the Lillies Bloom (1974), would be financed by the profits made by the film.
       Some of the picture’s success was due to its innovative marketing strategy. As laid out in a Nov 1972 Var article, Fox focused on group sales in major cities and targeted religious organizations and schools. A Jan 1973 HR article added that Radnitz personally visited thirty-five cities and held over 500 screenings, with sixty simultaneous sneak previews held in New York. The religious establishment came out in favor of the film, with an endorsement by the Catholic Film Office and a study guide for religious educators created by the National Council of Churches. The Var article noted that Fox also wrote a study guide, prepared by Dr. Roscoe Brown, Jr., director of Afro-American Affairs at New York University. Fox spent over $1 million on promoting the film, according to a Mar 1973 Var article. Despite this, a May 1972 DV article noted that Radnitz hoped to distribute further productions by himself.
       In addition to critical praise, the film received numerous awards and accolades. It garnered Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Writing (Screenplay—Based on Material from Another Medium), Best Actor (Paul Winfield) and Best Actress (Cicely Tyson). The nominations were landmarks for black talent: Along with Suzanne De Passe, who wrote 1972’s Lady Sings the Blues (see above), Elder was the first black writer nominated; Winfield was the third black actor honored (after Sidney Poitier and James Earl Jones) and, along with fellow 1972 nominee Diana Ross (for her role in Lady Sings the Blues ) Tyson marked the third black woman nominated [In 1955, Dorothy Dandridge had received a nomination for Best Actress for the 1954 film Carmen Jones (see above)]. In addition, Tyson and Hooks garnered Golden Globe nominations, Ritt was nominated for the DGA Award, Elder was nominated for the WGA Award and Taj Mahal earned a Grammy Award nomination for Album of Best Original Score Written for a Motion Picture.
       Ritt stated in a modern interview that although he was originally resistant to casting Tyson, considering her “too pretty” for the role, she convinced him that she could play Rebecca. Her performance was singled out by many critics for its gravity and restrained quality. Among her many commendations, she won the National Society of Film Critics and National Board of Review awards for Best Actress.
       Sounder was also recognized by myriad social organizations. The film received a special commendation in Mar 1973 from the California State Assembly, and in Oct 1972, was lauded on the floor of the national Congress by Hon. Charles C. Diggs, Jr. of Michigan, who declared the film “a turning point in the art of the motion picture.” As Roger Ebert noted in the Chicago Sun-Times review, Coretta Scott King commented that the character of “David Lee Morgan” reminded her of her late husband, Dr. Martin Luther King. Ritt referred to Sounder in a modern interview as his most financially and possibly most artistically successful film.
       Despite the acclaim, however, some detractors emerged. Vincent Canby wrote in NYT that Sounder ’s appeal derived more from its superiority to most “black” films than from its inherent excellence, and called it patronizing. Another writer published an article in the 12 Nov 1972 issue of NYT lambasting the film for its lack of realism, stating that “blacks still know too little about each other…while white filmmakers are laughing their heads off all the way to the bank.” Elder wrote a letter to the editor countering both critiques, stating that the characters were based on people he knew, and labeling Canby’s tone “condescending hauteur.” Other reviewers felt that the film was overly simplistic and sentimentalized, while the New Watts Awakening critic stated: “While Sounder no doubt is a milestone, much of its effect is diluted by keeping the action detached and isolated in its historical setting.”
       Radnitz and Mattel went on to make six more feature films and a television movie together. In Jan 1983, Radnitz sued Mattel, Inc. to stop the barter-based sale of the eight films he produced with them. The article noted that Mattel purchased Radnitz’ stock in the company in 1974, and the agreement at that time stipulated that the film could only be sold on a cash basis. The disposition of the suit is not known.
       A sequel, entitled Sounder, Part 2 , was released in 1976, written by Elder and directed by William A. Graham. Teddy Airhart reprised his role as “Mr. Perkins” in that film. A musical theater remake was announced in trade publications in Feb 1984, with Radnitz stating that Louis Gossett, Jr. was in discussions to star, and in a Dec 1995 DV news item Radnitz reported that he was talking to jazz musician Wynton Marsalis to score the musical. However, a theatrical version was never produced. A remake aired on ABC’s Wonderful World of Disney on 19 Jan 2003. Directed by Hooks, it starred Daniel Lee Robertson III, Carl Lumbly and Suzzanne Douglass, with Winfield playing a teacher. Hooks stated in a Jan 2003 NYT article on the remake that watching director of photography John A. Alonzo during the shooting of Sounder had inspired him to become a director.
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SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Box Office
28 Aug 1972
p. 4517.
Chicago Sun-Times
18 Dec 1972.
---
Daily Variety
14 Jul 1971.
---
Daily Variety
17 Aug 1971.
---
Daily Variety
10 May 1972.
---
Daily Variety
10 Aug 1972.
---
Daily Variety
29 Sep 1972.
---
Daily Variety
12 Oct 1972.
---
Daily Variety
16 Mar 1973.
---
Daily Variety
31 Oct 1973.
---
Daily Variety
6 Feb 1984.
---
Daily Variety
19 Dec 1995.
---
Ebony
Oct 1972
pp. 82-90.
Filmfacts
1972
pp. 285-89.
Hollywood Reporter
20 Sep 1971.
---
Hollywood Reporter
29 Oct 1971
p. 9.
Hollywood Reporter
8 Nov 1971.
---
Hollywood Reporter
15 Aug 1972
p. 3, 5.
Hollywood Reporter
22 Jan 1973.
---
Hollywood Reporter
12 Feb 1973.
---
Hollywood Reporter
14 Mar 2002
p. 3, 21.
Los Angeles Herald Examiner
13 Oct 1972.
---
Los Angeles Times
15 Oct 1972.
---
Los Angeles Times
6 Sep 1973.
---
New Watts Awakening
Nov 1972
p. 1, 4.
New York Times
12 Sep 1972
Section II, p. 1.
New York Times
25 Sep 1972
p. 49.
New York Times
15 Oct 1972
Section II, p. 15.
New York Times
12 Nov 1972
Section II, p. 1.
New York Times
26 Nov 1972.
---
New York Times
19 Jan 2003.
---
New Yorker
30 Sep 1972
pp. 109-110.
People
27 Jan 2003.
---
Time
9 Oct 1972.
---
Variety
16 Aug 1972
p. 15.
Variety
29 Nov 1972
p. 33.
Variety
14 Mar 1973
p. 4, 32.
Variety
26 Jan 1983.
---
Washington Post
20 Oct 1972.
---
CAST
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION TEXT
A Robert B. Radnitz/Martin Ritt Film
DISTRIBUTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Asst dir
2d asst dir
PRODUCER
WRITER
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
1st asst cam op
2d asst cam op
Still photog
Gaffer
Key grip
ART DIRECTORS
Prod des
Asst art dir
FILM EDITORS
Film ed
Film ed
Asst film ed
Asst film ed
SET DECORATORS
Const coord
Prop master
COSTUMES
MUSIC
Mus comp and performed by
SOUND
Sd mixer
Boom man
Post prod sd
PRODUCTION MISC
Prod mgr
Loc mgr
Scr supv
Casting
Transportation mgr
Prod secy
Loc secy
Animals trained by
Unit pub
SOURCES
LITERARY
Based on the novella Sounder by William H. Armstrong (New York, 1969).
SONGS
"Theme from Sounder, 'Needed Time,'" written by Taj Mahal, performed by Lightnin' Hopkins, courtesy of Kent Records.
PERFORMER
COMPOSER
DETAILS
Release Date:
October 1972
Premiere Information:
Atlanta Film Festival screeing: 13 August 1972
New York opening: 24 September 1972
Los Angeles opening: 12 October 1972
Production Date:
late August--early November 1971
Copyright Claimant:
Radnitz/Mattel Productions, Inc.
Copyright Date:
11 August 1972
Copyright Number:
LP42917
Physical Properties:
Sound
Color
DeLuxe
Widescreen/ratio
Panavision
Duration(in mins):
105
MPAA Rating:
G
Country:
United States
Language:
English
Passed by NBR:
No
SYNOPSIS

In Louisiana in 1933, the Morgan family, Nathan Lee, Rebecca and children David Lee, Earl and Josie Mae, suffers the myriad deprivations of the Depression, barely surviving by sharecropping for demanding store owner Mr. Perkins. Early one evening, Nathan takes David and their beloved dog Sounder to hunt raccoon for dinner. Nathan's shot misses its target, however, and although he is angry and depressed that once again there will be no meat on the family table, Rebecca responds to the news with customary composure. Later, Rebecca reminds Nathan they have been through other tough times, but he bitterly wonders why they toil ceaselessly to make Perkins richer. In the morning, Rebecca finds sausage and ham in the kitchen, and cooks it without a word. After the thrilled children eat their fill, she mildly asks Nathan where he was the previous night, and he responds, “I did what I had to do.” David attends school, where he and the other few black children in the class must sit in the back row. Later, the children bring Mrs. Rita Boatwright her laundry, which Rebecca, who takes in laundry to supplement the family's income, has washed. The kindly white woman lends David her copy of The Three Musketeers and offers to discuss it with him. The children then rush to the sugar cane fields, where the men are playing baseball, in time to see Nathan pitch a winning game. On the walk home they celebrate with family friends Ike and Harriet, but upon reaching their home, are distressed to see Sheriff Charlie Young and his deputy waiting there. Young brusquely arrests Nathan for stealing ... +


In Louisiana in 1933, the Morgan family, Nathan Lee, Rebecca and children David Lee, Earl and Josie Mae, suffers the myriad deprivations of the Depression, barely surviving by sharecropping for demanding store owner Mr. Perkins. Early one evening, Nathan takes David and their beloved dog Sounder to hunt raccoon for dinner. Nathan's shot misses its target, however, and although he is angry and depressed that once again there will be no meat on the family table, Rebecca responds to the news with customary composure. Later, Rebecca reminds Nathan they have been through other tough times, but he bitterly wonders why they toil ceaselessly to make Perkins richer. In the morning, Rebecca finds sausage and ham in the kitchen, and cooks it without a word. After the thrilled children eat their fill, she mildly asks Nathan where he was the previous night, and he responds, “I did what I had to do.” David attends school, where he and the other few black children in the class must sit in the back row. Later, the children bring Mrs. Rita Boatwright her laundry, which Rebecca, who takes in laundry to supplement the family's income, has washed. The kindly white woman lends David her copy of The Three Musketeers and offers to discuss it with him. The children then rush to the sugar cane fields, where the men are playing baseball, in time to see Nathan pitch a winning game. On the walk home they celebrate with family friends Ike and Harriet, but upon reaching their home, are distressed to see Sheriff Charlie Young and his deputy waiting there. Young brusquely arrests Nathan for stealing the ham from a neighbor’s smokehouse, and leads him off to jail in handcuffs. When Sounder, barking loudly, follows the truck, the deputy shoots him. Sounder limps off into the woods, and Rebecca holds tight to Earl and Josie Mae as David follows the wounded dog, but cannot locate him. Soon after, Rebecca goes to town to visit Nathan, leaving David in charge. As the children wait in tense silence, Rebecca walks miles in the heat to the jail, but despite her pleas, Young announces that black women are forbidden to visit their husbands in jail. While in town, she stops by Perkins’ store to trade walnuts for ingredients to bake Nathan a cake. Perkins complains to Rebecca that Nathan has made him look bad, as he has been good to the family, and demands that she do the cropping on her own if Nathan is not home by spring. At the trial, Nathan is sentenced to one year of hard labor at a parish prison camp. Over the next days, while David searches for Sounder, Rebecca bakes the cake and has David bring it to Nathan. From his cramped cell, Nathan struggles to reach the high window for a glimpse of Rebecca, but cannot. He collects himself and shares the cake with David, then asks the boy not to return. In Nathan’s absence, the family toils day and night to support themselves. At night, David reads The Three Musketeers to them, and on the weekends they attend church. After church one day, they are visited by the reverend, who reminds a skeptical Rebecca to take her troubles to the Lord. One night, Sounder returns. David ministers to him, and although the dog heals, he will not bark. After the sheriff refuses to inform Rebecca to which labor camp Nathan has been sent, David asks Mrs. Boatwright to find out for him. Young refuses to tell her the information, so after he leaves the office, she screws up her courage to spy in Nathan’s file. Returning, Young catches her and declares that if she reveals Nathan’s whereabouts to Rebecca, he will turn the entire parish against her. Outside, Mrs. Boatwright tells David that she did not see the name of the labor camp, but knowing that she is lying, he turns away wordlessly. Soon after, however, Mrs. Boatwright arrives at the house and announces the location of the labor camp to Rebecca, who cries with joy. The older woman teaches the family to read a map and pinpoints the location of the camp, and the next day, Rebecca sends David off with Sounder to find his father. Over many days, the boy travels through rain and sunshine, woods and fields, finally reaching the labor camp. There, however, no one will talk to him for fear of reprisal, and the foreman hits his hand with a pipe and chases him away. Dejected, David walks to a nearby schoolhouse, and inside is stunned to see that all the students are black. The young black teacher, Camille Johnson, invites him in and tends to his hand, and upon noting his fascination with the classroom, offers to put him up for the night. Her lovely home is filled with books, and Camille inspires David with tales of notable blacks in history and the writings of intellectuals such as W. E. B. Dubois. The next morning, in class, one boy tells a story of rescuing his sister from drowning, and although the other children doubt his veracity, David defends the boy, knowing that people can achieve the impossible when they are forced to do so. He sets off again for home, laden with books from Camille and hoping fervently to return. Rebecca welcomes him joyously, and although she knows that his returning to Camille’s school will mean even more work for her, she agrees to consider it. Over the hot summer, they reap and process the sugar cane, and at the end of cropping season receive their meager payment. One afternoon as Rebecca is sewing, she hears Sounder suddenly bark and run off down the road, and realizes that at long last Nathan has returned. Shouting his name, she runs to meet him, and although he is limping, he drops his cane and rushes to her. The family embraces, weeping with joy. At dinner, Nathan explains that he was injured in a dynamite blast that rendered him unable to work and so was released early. David feels hugely relieved to have Nathan home, but when his father tries to work the next day, he collapses in pain, then bravely carries on. Later, a letter from Camille arrives for David, instructing him to arrive within the week. Nathan is pleased, but David announces that he will not leave his father’s side. When Nathan shakes him in anger, declaring that he needs schooling like he needs “good air to breathe,” David runs off. At Rebecca’s urging, Nathan tracks David to the nearby pond and gently tells the boy that when he was wounded, he made up his mind to beat death, and now he wants David to beat the life that is in store for him. He promises to love David no matter where he is. Days later, David, dressed in a new suit, bids goodbye to his mother, sister and brother and sets out for his school, accompanied by his proud father. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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The American Film Institute is grateful to Sir Paul Getty KBE and the Sir Paul Getty KBE Estate for their dedication to the art of the moving image and their support for the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and without whose support AFI would not have been able to achieve this historical landmark in this epic scholarly endeavor.