[Originally published in Movietone News 22, April 1973]
Nice. Safe. Inoffensive. These words adequately characterize Sounder and confirm the precise, if surely unintentional, irony of its pitch: “If you are the sort of person who sees only one movie each year, Sounder is the movie you should see this year.” Sounder has little to do with movies except in relation to those patronizing, sociologically oriented terms dear to the hearts of the Judith Crists and Richard Meyers of the world. There are strength, dignity, and a wealth of cinematic possibility in this carefully respectful and humane story about a black man who goes to jail in 1933 Louisiana for stealing food with which to feed his family, about the family that stays behind on their sharecropper spread and lives on and loves him, and about the eldest son (around 14) who becomes the focus of all their hopes, the one who may manage to do better than to survive by the received terms of life’s contract for their kind of folks in that time and place. Unfortunately, Martin Ritt’s realization of those possibilities is inadequate save in the painlessly assimilable mode of Playhouse 90 on the big screen.
In order to be better—which is to say, of any particular value at all—Sounder would have to be altered radically in one of two directions: toward a greater density of sociological, psychological, economic, philosophical, spiritual, and environmental detail that would help convert it into a valid and memorable social and historical document; or—more daring, challenging, and (to me) more interesting—toward mythic simplification and, perhaps, an audacious expressionism that would explode beyond both the finite story and any mere sociological utility. No step is taken in the latter direction except in the most tentative and, in context, contrived fashion: the odd, uncomfortable, wishfully tragic moment when the father, returned from the work gang broken in body, is knocked to the ground because he cannot keep pace with the relentlessness of one of his own primitive farmtools. As to the social content, Ritt seems as undecided as his white characters where he stands: they are caught in a nonviable mode somewhere between humanistically rendered discomfiture over a sense of guilt that dare not speak its name and reflexive, typecast allegory.
To his and their credit, the blacks manifest an unselfconscious, unpolemical dignity, and the film is at its best when we are permitted to take them as people of no special class. Kevin Hooks, son of actor Robert, is noticeably speaking lines instead of speaking for himself, but Paul Winfield’s credibility as the adored father is great enough to justify this as part of the boy’s sense of wonder—wonder at something within the film rather than, say, the camera crew recording it. The film also boasts two magnificent ladies in the forms of Cicely Tyson as the mother and Janet MacLachlan as a young, convincingly sincere schoolteacher the son encounters on his travels to find where his father is imprisoned. John Alonzo, whose distinctive skill has been at the service of other undeserving movies (Harold and Maude, The Vanishing Point, Ritt’s Pete ‘n’ Tillie), works admirably to evoke a potent sense of locale, and in the early reels the baked colors, the heat-wavy emulsion are highly persuasive; but Ritt’s spurious sense of discretion and banal concept of symbolic action soon have Alonzo serving up calendar views of Kevin Hooks traipsing through artfully selected meadows.
Copyright © 1973 Richard T. Jameson
Direction: Martin Ritt. Screenplay: Lonne Elder III, after the novel by William H. Armstrong. Cinematography: John A. Alonzo. Music: Lightnin’ Hopkins, Taj Mahal. Production: Robert B. Radnitz.
The Players: Kevin Hooks, Cicely Tyson, Paul Winfield, Carmen Matthews, Janet MacLachlan, James Best, Taj Mahal.