Revisiting Sounder: Cicely Tyson’s first Oscar nod
Entertainment Weekly's new special edition, A Celebration of Black Film, explores more than a century of movies and the artists who created them. This excerpt remembers Sounder (1972), a Depression-era tearjerker that earned Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Screenplay, Actor (Paul Winfield), and Actress (Cicely Tyson). It is one of several great period dramas we included that, spanning eras and a range of Black experiences, tell the truth through fiction.
It seems a simple story about a sharecropper family and their dog Sounder. Yet William H. Armstrong's 1969 children's novel uses a quaint premise as its Trojan horse. In the 1972 film of Sounder, African-American screenwriter Lonne Elder III understood that at its core was a story about institutional racism. It is 1933, in the backwoods of Louisiana. Despite their backbreaking labor, Nathan and Rebecca Morgan — a do-right Black man and woman in a committed marriage, played with unimpeachable grace by Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson —never seem to be able to put enough food on the table. It's a rigged system where even the raccoons and possums evade Nathan's rifle.
Returning home empty-handed one too many nights, he sees no recourse but to steal a ham to feed his family. Rarely has a film pointed a finger so squarely at the societal inequality that would deny a hardworking family the right to eat. Three white men arrive soon after and cart Nathan off to jail, shooting his dog for good measure. Much of the film then focuses on his son David's (Kevin Hooks) quest to find both his father and his wounded dog.
But the story is also surprisingly hopeful. Along the way David meets an African-American schoolteacher who exposes him to abolitionist Harriet Tubman and the first casualty of the American Revolution, Crispus Attucks; his schooling a nod to the role that education will play in lifting the next generation out of poverty. There is also inspiration embedded in scenes of the family's playing baseball together, laughing and traipsing across the green fields to the tune of a country banjo and Taj Majal's gospel blues. As Taj Mahal sings, "Someday there be a change," indeed.
EW's A Celebration of Black Film is available on Amazon and wherever magazines are sold.