Sounder (1972, dir. Martin Ritt) documents the life of a rural African American family in Louisiana in 1933. The film has a semi-documentary quality. The main character is the oldest son in the family, David Lee (Kevin Hooks), who’s growing up and has a close relationship with his father Nathan (Paul Winfield). The Morgans are sharecroppers, and when the film begins they are having a difficult time. Nathan and David Lee are out hunting raccoons for dinner, but they miss an opportunity and go home late without supper for the family. The film records in simple, straightforward form the lives of the family as they go to town, play baseball, work, and talk with one another. There are no especially dramatic moments. It’s not a series of crises or problems. It’s just the life of the Morgan family. Its purpose is to give a picture of what life was like for one black family during the 1930s.
When Nathan fails to bring home supper, he leaves late at night and returns with meat stolen from a local farmer. As a result, he’s arrested and tried for robbery and sent to a work camp for a year. David Lee and his mother Rebecca (Cicely Tyson) and a brother and sister must work the farm and bring in the crops so that the farmer who owns their farm can receive his earnings.
David Lee decides to go search for the work camp where his father is living. The town sheriff apparently knows where the work camp is but won’t reveal the information, he says because of rules, not even to a local white woman, Mrs. Boatwright (Carmen Mathews) who is friendly to the family. She manages to get the information from his file cabinet anyway, and David Lee leaves on a long hunt for his father’s whereabouts. The movie suggests it’s a long walk, and he passes through farm after farm, hardly seeing anyone. He visits several work camps but never finds his father. A school teacher befriends him. She teaches an all-black school and talks to David Lee about important figures in African American history. In the end, she invites David Lee to attend the school. (The film pointedly shows David Lee attending a class where the teacher reads from Huckleberry Finn, and of his reading with pleasure the novel The Three Musketeers. These are both artifacts of white culture, while the school teacher who befriends him introduces him for the first time to figures from African American history and culture).
He returns home. Sometime later, the father returns as well, and family life resumes, though Nathan insists that David Lee must leave to attend the school. The family works hard to make their farm a success, but the film does not extol the virtues of farming, nor does it suggest that farming is the best way towards success and self-sufficiency for African Americans. Nathan tells his son not to love the farm. Nathan says he will miss it, but he will not worry about it. Thus the film gives one reason why African Americans across the South began leaving their farms during the early decades of the 20th century in the Great Migration towards northern cities.
What Sounder does extol is the virtues of family. That is the value in which all the Morgans believe. They work hard on the farm for the betterment of the family. At the same time, the film tends to idealize their lives and the conditions under which they lived, which on the average I would suspect were more difficult than portrayed. Moreover, certain scenes don’t seem historically accurate. Early in the film, we see David Lee going to attend school in a class taught by a white teacher and filled with white students, except for the last row, where David Lee and two other black students sit. It’s highly doubtful that in 1933 in Louisiana any white school would have allowed black students to be in the same classroom with whites.
Sounder makes clear the difficult legal circumstances in which the Morgan family and other African Americans lived during the Depression era of the American South. Some whites are friendly, others are not. The family is subject to the requirements of sharecropping, of an economic system that allows them barely to scrape by, and a law enforcement system that is indifferent to why they may be driven to steal. It’s interesting to compare this film with Hallelujah (1929; dir. King Vidor), which argues that most of the problems black people encounter are of their own doing, and that the farming life is what they are best suited for. The characters in Sounder are simply good and decent people trying to live their lives, trying to get by, in difficult circumstances.
Sounder is David Lee’s dog. When the sheriff arrives to arrest Nathan and drives away with him, the dog follows, barking, and the deputy shoots him. The dog’s return to David Lee and gradual recovery is a symbol of the family that unifies the film.