Southern Movie #20: “Sounder”

In honor of Black History Month, the Southern Movie this time is 1972’s “Sounder,” starring Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson as sharecroppers Nathan and Rebecca Morgan. The Morgans live and farm, with their three children, in Louisiana during the Great Depression. The movie is an adaptation of the Newbery-winning novel of the same name, written by William H. Armstrong, and though the title comes from the name of the family dog, his role in the film’s story is minimal. It is really about the family’s oldest son, David Lee Morgan, who we follow all the way through.

“Sounder” begins one evening at dusk, when father Nathan and son David Lee are heading off to hunt, with Sounder of course. After the brief credits roll, it is night, and Nathan and David Lee are after a raccoon. Sounder is running and braying, and they are trying to keep up. Although Sounder trees the raccoon, Nathan shoots and misses, and it gets away. The pair go hone empty-handed, and we soon find out through Nathan’s chagrin that it will mean another night of hunger for his family. However, giving up is not an option; as the two call it a night and head in the house, David Lee repeats back to his father what he has always been told: “You lose some of the time what you always go after, but you lose all the time what you don’t go after!”

The family is living in real poverty, so this lesson is particularly appropriate. The children are put to bed with little to eat, and after the house is quiet, Nathan sneaks out. We find out where he went when the sun comes up and there is food to eat, and the day begins happily for the family, though warily for Nathan’s wife Rebecca: Where did that food come from? 

The day continues happily as the family goes to a community baseball game, where Nathan is the star pitcher.The team wins, and on their way home, walking and laughing and singing with friend Ike (played by blues great Taj Mahal), life is good— that is, until they get home.

As the Morgans approach the edge of their place, Sounder bolts for the house, braying wildly! And we quickly find out why. There are three white men standing out front, amd one of them is the sheriff ( played by James Best, who was well known in the 1980s as zany ne’er-do-well Roscoe P. Coltrane in “The Dukes of Hazzard”). The men have come to take Nathan to jail for stealing food from a local store.

Now, Rebecca and David Lee must step up, since Nathan sits behind bars, awaiting trial. Rather than sitting around, Rebecca charges into the very store where Nathan stole the food and uses her last iota of credit to purchase the goods to bake him his favorite kind of cake! Though all involved recognize how badly the family needs the man of the house to operate their small farm, Nathan gets convicted and sent to a prison camp far from where the family lives— only they aren’t told where. It takes the help of friendly white lady, Mrs. Boatwright, who Rebecca does laundry for, to finagle her way past the stolid sheriff and into his file cabinet for information.

In their efforts not to let the sheriff know that they know where Nathan is being held, Rebecca sends David Lee to visit his father, rather than going herself. The crisis has meant that it is time for David Lee Morgan to man up and face the world by himself. He takes to the woods alone, heading in the direction of the prison camp.

On his way, David Lee meets the woman who will become his teacher. Never has David Lee known a black woman who lives alone in such a nice house and who owns books! But he cannot stay. He has to move on. Despite being enthralled with the idea of being free from the cyclical poverty that dominates his life, David must find his father.

Once he arrives the prison camp, David Lee tries to speak to the men through the fence, but they tell him that no one named Nathan Morgan is there. The boy is shocked: No, he has to be!  However, he is quickly shooed, first by the inmates then by a guard, and is forced to run away without seeing his father. David Lee’s difficult journey is fruitless.

Though it is David Lee’s journey back home that makes all the difference. He returns home a young man who has encountered new ideas, including what it means to be educated. David Lee already understood the realities of rural poverty, of hard work, and of family, but now he also understands opportunity.

Realizing that must forge ahead without Nathan, Rebecca and her children get to work on planting a crop, and we watch them do what anyone would have doubted was possible. In the Morgans’ world, there is no standing around, no pouting, no feeling sorry for one’s self. The work must get done, if there is to be a harvest at all.

As the end of the film approaches, after David Lee’s journey and after the hard work of raising the crop is complete, the Morgans see a man coming up the road, stumbling, barely moving like a man at all. As he nears, they realize it is Nathan! However, he is on crutches and barely able to support his own weight. In the prison where he was held, he injured his back, and now worthless as a laborer, he has been released early. The family is reunited, but everything has changed.

Now, Nathan is not the man he once was, and David Lee has had to become a man in his father’s absence. Nathan tries, when he returns, to participate in the work of the farm, but is just not able. And, though his family now needs him very much, David Lee gets a letter from the teacher who he met on his journey, encouraging him to come to school if he can. And though David Lee is initially resistant, preferring to stay on and help his family, Nathan understands what is at stake. His son must take this opportunity to go and learn, even though it means that he will have to move away.

For films centered on African American subjects, the early 1970s was the heyday of blaxploitation. TCM’s webpage for “Sounder” explains:

During a time when “Blaxploitation” films like Shaft (1971) and Superfly (1972) were gaining popularity, Sounder (1972) (named after the family dog in the film), was a breath of fresh air for those looking for a worthwhile movie going experience for the entire family.

“Sounder” is no less candid about racial injustice, but its treatment stands in real contrast to blaxploitation films. Where Shaft and Superfly  portrayed then-current characters whose lives were steeped in urbanity and crime, Nathan Morgan lives in a different time, displays a different kind of strength, and finds a different solace. He is a steady family man, married with children, of solid moral character, and whose labors are not enough to make ends meet. Nathan Morgan is definitely no Dolemite.

As a document of the American South, “Sounder” offered some hard truths about the region’s past for a post-Civil Rights audience to engage: Why does a hard-working man have trouble feeding his family? Why won’t the white sheriff tell a black family where their husband and father is incarcerated? Why is education so hard to attain for black children? These and other matters are put on display, simply and clearly, for general audiences. (The novel, Sounder, is, after all, for younger readers.) In this film, we see the near-hopeless oppression that Depression-era African Americans faced in the South, a place where they had to go into debt with local stores to eat, where they got no consideration from law enforcement or the courts, but where they nonetheless tried to lead decent lives that included love, family, fun, and work.

In David Lee Morgan, we see hope for African Americans in South, just as we sympathize with his real-world predicament. Though David Lee recognizes the value of education, he also recognizes that no school exists near his home. With his father crippled, he would have to abandon those who need him immediately in order to pursue a greater good whose benefits will come later in his life.

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