Friday, November 29, 2019

Sounder Review

If you're unfamiliar with this film, don't be fooled by the title. While "Sounder" is the name of a coon dog lovingly raised by a Louisiana sharecropper, circa 1933, this isn't a film in the tradition of other movies named for it's main canine--films like "Old Yeller," "Big Red," "Benji," or "Beethoven."

The dog gets his due in the early going when he barks nonstop on an unsuccessful coon hunt, but mostly this film is about bigger things than an old hound dog. "Sounder" is a warm and sensitive period family film about an African-American family just trying to get by during the Great Depression. Filmed entirely in East Feliciana and St. Helena Parishes, this 1972 film and its message of hope and change rings especially true during a year when the first African American was elected President. There's racism evident here even in the whites who treat their dark-skinned brothers and sisters with kindness, but there's also a thread of optimism that speaks as loudly as ol' Sounder. A winning script, organic cinematography, music from Taj Mahal, and some terrific performances by Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield added up to four Oscar nominations. And while the pace is slow as a southern drawl, if you give this film a chance it's still a rewarding experience on a number of levels.

Based on the 1969 Newberry Medal-winning juvenile novel by William H. Armstrong, "Sounder" is first and foremost a humanist story of a southern family's tenacity and resilience. Lonne Elder ("A Woman Called Moses") became the first African American to be nominated for a Best Screenplay Oscar with this excellent adaptation, and director Martin Ritt ("Hombre," "Norma Rae," "Cross Creek") doesn't force anything. He lets this moving and powerful story unfold the way the old Disney time-lapse nature photography created art from even the smallest natural moments.

From shots of convicts using a buzz saw to cut wooden planks to scenes that incorporate one of the locals playing a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse, "Sounder" is full of the kind of details that can give you a good sense of what everyday life was like for dirt-poor sharecroppers and townspeople in a small Louisiana town. This, along with the film's loving family and caring Others, make "Sounder" a great family movie.

"Dukes of Hazzard" fans will do a double-take when they see their beloved comic Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane playing it straight as Sheriff Young--the only real identifier that pulls you out of the illusion that we're actually watching a family and their struggles in a kind of early reality show. That's because the camerawork by John A. Alonzo ("Chinatown") maintains a nice balance between interesting angles to reinforce the action and close-ups or establishing shots that reflect his background working for National Geographic. The camerawork is, for the most part, as naturalistic and unobtrusive as nature photography, and that adds weight to this historical drama.