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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Sounder is a 1972 movie about a young African-American teen's coming of age in 1930s Louisiana. It's based on the Newberry Award-winning novel by William H. Armstrong. Profanity includes "bastards," "damn," and "hell." There's also racist language. There are brief but dramatic moments of violence: A deputy attempts to shoot and kill a dog after the dog chases after his owner, who has just been arrested. The central character is hit in the hand with a riding crop by the white man in charge of overseeing the African-American men serving time in a work camp -- his hand is shown injured and bleeding. Overt and more insidious forms of racism are conveyed in a variety of ways. But one of the overarching themes of the movie is the power of education and literacy as a means to overcome a deeply rooted racist society in which wealthy white landowners exploit poor and uneducated African-Americans.
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What's the story?
Set during the Depression, SOUNDER follows the story of the Morgan family, black sharecroppers in rural Louisiana. Hunting late at night, David Lee (Kevin Hooks) and his father (Paul Winfield) fail to bring home some desperately needed meat. But a day later, David's mother, Rebecca (Cicely Tyson), shakes him and his younger sister and brother awake to the smell of frying ham. In short order, the sheriff and a landowner show up to arrest dad Nathan for smokehouse burglary. When Rebecca leaves to learn her husband's fate, David shoulders the tasks of an adult. After Nathan is sentenced to a year of hard labor, Rebecca and David find out he's been sent far away. Rebecca sends David off to contact him and, on the way, David meets a trailblazing teacher in an all-black school and determines to attend. When Nathan comes home injured, he supports David's wish, but it takes the family -- and David himself -- some time to realize that this is the best course for all of them.
Is it any good?
Sounder stands out as an honest celebration of a strong family's triumph over poverty and racism. Without sugar-coating the hard lives of black Louisiana sharecroppers, the Morgan family's enduring ties to each other set alight this film depicting the poverty, desperation, and bigotry of the rural South during the Great Depression. The movie's beautifully enhanced by the country blues of Lightnin' Hopkins and the hollers and rough-hewn cakewalks of the inimitable Taj Mahal (who appears as Ike). The transformation of svelte, elegant Cicely Tyson into the ragged, destitute Rebecca epitomizes the sharp contrast between the life most Americans lead and the back-breaking, desperate circumstances the Morgan family transcends.
Winfield and Tyson skillfully balance between the proud flash of individuality and the drab obsequious shell society demands. In support, a range of actors with real -- if largely unknown -- faces add to the film's authentic feel, including Kevin Hooks as a convincing David, whose attachment to his father is palpable. It takes an argument before Nathan can acknowledge that love and before David realizes that it is out of an equal love that his father urges him toward the faraway school. The other children on-screen are frequently wooden, a minor flaw in an otherwise excellent production. The hard, hot light of the rural South floods its scenes, revealing the depths of feeling that saw some families through such trials.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about whether movies depict life realistically. Do movies usually gloss over distasteful but real-life experiences such as poverty, death, and loss? Why or why not? Does this movie do so? Do you think realism adds to or detracts from stories?
Compare and contrast the books David Lee is exposed to by his white teacher, the woman who owns the land on which his family works as sharecroppers, and the young African-American teacher who wants David Lee to start attending her school. What comment do you think this makes on reading and literacy for African-American children? How is it a comment on the time in which the movie is set, and how might it be relevant today?
What were some of the overt and more subtle forms of racism shown in the movie?
Have you read the book? How does the movie compare?
- In theaters: September 24, 1972
- On DVD or streaming: April 30, 2002
- Cast: Carmen Mathews, Cicely Tyson, James Best
- Director: Marcus Raboy
- Studio: United American Video
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: Book Characters
- Character strengths: Perseverance
- Run time: 105 minutes
- MPAA rating: G
- Last updated: September 19, 2019
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