Judge Chris Kulik won't admit it publicly, but Benji is one of his favorite films of all time.
"You know, son, there ain't no dog as good as Sounder. In all the years we've been tracking coons and possums in these woods, he ain't never told one of them up yet!"
Based on the Newberry-winning book by William H. Armstrong, Sounder is one of the best—and often overlooked—staples of 1970s cinema. Despite four Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, the film has struggled to get the superlative digital treatment it so richly deserves. Not that Koch Vision has stepped up to the plate for the classic's second DVD appearance, two questions are warranted: 1) Is it an improvement over the initial 2002 release, and 2) Does it do the film justice?
Facts of the Case
The time and place: 1933, Louisiana. The Great Depression has taken a serious economic toll on the entire country, with African-American families suffering even more than whites because of Southern prejudices. One such family, the Morgans, have reached the poverty level, forcing father Nathan (Paul Winfield, White Dog) and son David (Kevin Hooks) to hunt at night. One such night they go home empty handed, thus leaving them, their mother Rebecca (Cicely Tyson, Diary Of A Mad Black Woman), and their two other children to starve.
Upset and desperate, Nathan boldly decides to steal a hog from a smokehouse in the middle of the night and cook it for his family. This leads to an arrest and conviction of one year hard labor, a serious blow to the Morgan's financial dependence, working as sharecroppers to a white storeowner. What's more, the bigoted police force refuses to disclose Nathan's whereabouts while serving his time. When David manages to coax a family friend into finding out, however, he decides to travel on his own to visit him, joined by his pet hound dog.
The reasoning behind Sounder's Oscar nods is understandable after just one viewing. Story elements are facile, to be sure, yet its execution yields eloquence in practically every area of filmmaking. Here's a rare family film which was made with love and affection in equal doses from individuals on both sides of the camera. It might lack the complex brilliance of its major competitor The Godfather, which won Best Picture, but its themes and beauty are no less intelligent and marvellous. Sadly, the Oscars have always shied away from quiet masterpieces like Sounder, and even certain audiences get intimidated by its family-friendly, G-rated nature, misinterepreting as it being strictly for children.
First, let's dissect what Sounder is really about. The title is the name of the family's hound dog, which would suggest this is some kind of boy-and-his-dog tale in the tradition of Lassie, Shiloh, and Far From Home: The Adventures Of Yellow Dog (don't worry, I'll never mention that last title in a review ever again). Assumptions aside, the dog isn't a primary character and he's hardly alluded to in the second half of the film. Instead, the dog acts more like a symbol in terms of the Morgan's stength and perserverence. When Nathan is taken away by the police, Sounder runs after him and gets shot by the arresting officer. Disappearing into the woods, Sounder doesn't return for several days. When he does re-appear and takes the 20-minute journey with David he's only occasionally seen or mentioned. (For serveral minutes, I was seriously afraid the film would cheat itself by having the dog lead David to his father; thankfully, that never happened!)
As characters, the Morgans must deal with a double challenge: poverty and adversity. Even though the Civil War had long ended, blacks were hardly free and still worked as slaves, just in a different capacity (in the Morgan's case, its sharecropping). As W.E.B. DuBois wrote, the "problem of the 20th century is the color-line" and its true that families like the Morgans had to bow down to white authority just so they could get what they need. Freedom wasn't a right, it was a privelage, even a blessing. Many small, subtle moments emphasize the Morgan's place in society…but only enough to allow young viewers to understand the reality of the situation. Little things such as the Sherriff slightly adjusting his fan away from Rebecca speak volumes of the white's limited tolerance for blacks at the time, and they are appropriately etched into the screenplay without running towards moralizing or preaching.
Acclaimed director Martin Ritt (The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, Norma Rae, Nuts) guides this film both professionally and passionately. Ritt gives the film a smooth, natural pace and, to add to the film's authenticity, he shot on location down in Lousiana, with stunning work courtesy of cameraman John A. Alonzo (Chinatown). The endless fields of grain and 1930s atmosphere are beyond glorious, visually nailing not only landscape splendor but the harsh economic recession. I can't even imagine what Sounder looked like on the big screen, as its backdrops seem to go off forever with fine focus and devoted detail.
It would be impossible to discuss Sounder's greatness without touching upon the award-calibre performances across the board. Cicely Tyson is an absolute revelation as the soft-spoken, fiercely devoted wife and mother who is faced with an unfathomable family crisis. At times, it seems as she may break apart or scream any minute, but thankfully she doesn't emotionally explode until the right time. The late, underrated Paul Winfield matches Tyson even if he is only onscreen for about a 1/3 of the film; still, both Oscar nominations were well deserved. BTW, their winning chemistry proved to be so valuable, they played a star couple aga in the 1978 miniseries King, about the life and times of Martin Luther King, Jr.
I've always had a difficult time judging child actors, but Kevin Hooks really wowed me here as the 13-year-old son David. If the adult actors bring about feelings of pain and suffering, then Hooks' projects innocence and a sorely needed light during the darker moments. David loves his family and will do anything for them, yet he also yearns for an education so he could distance himself away from the hardships the black community has dealt with for sometime. This character need brings about quite possibly the most powerful scene in the film: a climactic father-son talk which avoids the easy way out and maintains Sounder's sublime sensibilities.
Several other performances are noteworthy. Carmen Mathews (Daniel) is lovingly sincere as an elderly white woman who is fond of David and vows to help him, and Janet MacLachlan (Tightrope) is tender and warm as a sympathetic schoolteacher. There is also songwriter Taj Mahal (Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey) who has the small role of Ike, Nathan's buddy who loves to play the guitar. Mahal contributes a heart-rending title tune called "Needed Time" (which was sung by Lightnin' Hopkins) and, ironically enough, was the only actor to transfer over to Part 2, Sounder, the ultra-rare sequel which has never been released on video.
Now comes the most important topic of this review: Koch Vision's technical treatment. Fans of the film will be slightly disappointed with several flaws, yet we must at least give the distributor credit for at least providing a 2:35:1 anamorphic print, which I no doubt suspect is on par with a TCM showing. While I never watched the film on the original 2002 disc, I heard Sterling Entertainment disgraced the film's followers with a dreadful pan-and-scan handling, as well as a dirty image completely tarnishing Alonzo's work.
Koch's release seems to be a vast improvement, with the bright colors and greenish landscape preserved in as much glory as could be mustered, and yet it appears the film wasn't restored or remastered. I don't blame Koch for this, and I'll explain in a minute. Grain is visible numerous times, and scratches definitely materialize on occasion, but overall the image is clean. The audio is a mild disappointment, with with Taj Mahal's tunes being restricted by a 2.0 Stereo which serves its purpose and nothing more. Dialogue is easily heard for the most part, although no subtitles or closed captioning is provided which is really cheap. Finally, extras are pretty much nil aside from a trailer.
As I said, I'm not sure whose to blame for Sounder's less-than-stellar presentation, but Koch evidently tried its best. Something kept them from the original negative, however, which could have been utilized for a much-needed restoration. The original distributor is Twentieth Century Fox, however the film was released on video in the '90s by Paramount. Why Paramount didn't get the opportunity to release the DVD is beyond me; it forces Koch Vision to be scrutinized, which is rather unfair. Whoever decided to unceremoniously dump this film on an independent distributor without giving them access to the negative and original recordings should be ashamed of themselves. True, there is a small possibilty they may not exist anymore, but I, for one, would like an answer. As a result, Sounder is one of a small group of important, truly great films (along with Roman Polanski's Repulsion and Frank Perry's Diary Of A Mad Housewife) which is being denied a full special edition treatment by someone or some major studio because of unknown reasons. (Plus, where is Part 2, Sounder? I suspect those that own that film are the same ones restricting this film from a proper restoration!)
The Rebuttal Witnesses
So, while I don't blame Koch for the film's flawed visual and audio qualities, there should be no excuse on their part for the lack of extras. Do they honestly want us to believe that Cicely Tyson or Kevin Hooks were too busy or refused to record an audio commentary? Hell, Hooks loves this film so much he even felt the need to remake it for Disney in 2003 for television! Once again, let me reiterate: THIS IS A MULTIPLE OSCAR-NOMINEE PEOPLE! Forgive me, but it kind of makes me sick when The Evil Dead (which I like) has been re-released dozens of times and Sounder can't get one proper release.
As for the film itself, I have no complaints at all. However, I think I should address the possibility of some African-American audiences rejecting this film simply because it was helmed by a white director. The reason I bring this up is because of the small controversy which erupted when Taylor Hackford cinematically took on the life of Ray Charles several years ago. While the negative treatment of blacks in Sounder may be somewhat soft and restrained in comparison to what it was really like, I would mostly contribute this to the family-friendly attitude (the film was co-produced by the Mattel corporation, after all) and not Martin Ritt himself. Arguably, the violence against African-Americans at the time was much more harsh than a simple hand-whipping, but this light touch doesn't taint the film's power.
One of the most impressive things about Sounder is that it was a G-rated film with an all-black cast which came out during the heyday of the blaxploitation movement. True, it's rather strange to watch this film and be reminded of such individuals as Sweet Sweetback, Shaft, and Dolemite, yet I'm sure audiences—both black and white—found this fable remarkably refreshing in comparison to those ultra-violent and campy excursions into city ghettos and seedy nightspots. Ultimately, this might be Sounder's greatest achievement, as it avoids all the stereotypes of its schlocky, punchin'-and-pimpin' brothers in favor of something more real, tender, relevant and—no pun intended—sound. The black characters here are treated with total respect and it's almost impossible not to feel sympathy toward them…and even shed a few tears in the process. If you haven't seen Sounder yet, it's a worthy candidate for a family viewing this Thanksgiving or Christmas; and, yet, it's so good that anytime of the year is appropriate.
The film is free to go, as is Koch Vision for their good intentions, but the court is deeply concerned of the film's fate in the future. Hopefully, time will give Sounder a digital makeover and more than just a trailer. Court is adjourned!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Vision
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