Boy: Sounder's littler than me. How come he can make a bigger
Sounder, a children's novel written by William H. Armstrong, tells the story of a poor black sharecropper and his family in the Depression-era South. The book won the coveted Newberry medal in 1969, and remains popular on middle school reading lists to this day. Director Martin Ritt transformed the novel into an excellent film in 1972, starring Cicely Tyson, Paul Winfield, and Kevin Hooks (as the boy). That film—made near the height of the Civil Rights Movement—received four Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, and has attained the status of a classic. Over 30 years later, Disney television has produced a remake of Sounder. For director, they tapped a 44-year-old seasoned professional named Kevin Hooks—the same Kevin Hooks who had acted in the earlier film as a 13-year-old boy. Now Disney has released this 2003 remake on DVD.
Facts of the Case
A hardworking, proud black sharecropper (Carl Lumbly) lives with his devout wife (Suzzanne Douglass) and their three children in the rural South of the1930s. He finds a stray coon dog which he and his older son (Daniel Lee Robertson III) take hunting. Because of the dog's excited howls when he chases prey, they name him Sounder. During the winter, when game is scarce, the sharecropper steals a ham in order to feed his family. He is arrested and sentenced to five years of hard labor at an undisclosed location in the state. With his mother's blessing, the son sets out on a journey to find his father and make his way in the world, while Sounder, injured during the arrest, stays behind.
It would be impossible to judge Sounder without first taking the 1972 film into account. The late director Martin Ritt is probably best remembered for his films Hud (1963) and Norma Rae (1979). In Sounder, produced in the middle of his career, Ritt beautifully evokes the Depression-era South. The racism encountered by the Morgan family in 1933 was given greater resonance by the racial strife affecting the country as a whole in 1972. Cicely Tyson (as Rebecca) and Paul Winfield (as Nathan Lee) give powerful and nuanced performances, which still ring true.
Kevin Hooks has said that the newer film adaptation adheres more closely to Armstrong's book, but this turns out to be a mixed blessing. Here, as in the book, the characters are given no first or last names, but are identified as the Father, the Mother, and the Boy. The dialogue has a more literary quality to it and, at times, doesn't sound natural (the Mother, especially, is given dialogue which could have come from the Book of Psalms). The character of Sounder is moved to the periphery (curiously, he doesn't even accompany the Boy on his sojourn across the state, as he does in the original film), and you may get the impression that he's there more for symbolic reasons than as a beloved family pet. These changes, though relatively minor, have a distancing effect on the story, which I think blunts some of its emotional power.
The new version is 20 minutes shorter than the old, and has a slightly different focus. The character of the sympathetic white woman, Mrs. Boatwright, has been excised—wisely, I think. Also missing is the character of Ike, played in the 1972 film by the blues musician Taj Mahal, who also wrote and performed the score. The racial message of this film has also been altered in subtle ways: here, the Father receives a sentence of five years of hard labor for stealing the ham instead of one. He is also a much angrier and more confrontational man, who has trouble holding his tongue. This may make him appear more heroic, but it also strikes me as a bit anachronistic. By the same token, some may fault the 1972 film for portraying the father as too easily accepting of his fate. Either way, it's difficult to balance historical accuracy with the need to send a positive message.
Kevin Hooks acquits himself well as director, and coaxes excellent performances from the adults. Carl Lumbly and Suzzanne Douglass are first-rate as the parents. Douglass is able to convey a woman steeled by her faith, and determined not to let her children see her cry. Her voice has a beautiful musical quality, which allows her line readings to sing. Carl Lumbly is equally good at portraying a man of uncommon common sense who is by turns proud, angry, stern and macho. In a nice touch, Paul Winfield (the father in the 1972 version) appears in a cameo as the sympathetic teacher. The film really comes alive when he's onscreen.
There are several problems with the film. I didn't like the choices Hooks makes with the last third of the film, including the ending, which is a bit capricious and anticlimactic. At times, I think he tries too hard to make the film Important and Timeless, and forgets that there's a story to tell. Newcomer Daniel Lee Robertson III tries valiantly as the Boy, but his line readings sound flat, particularly in comparison to those of the adult actors. To be fair, this is as much a problem with the script, which requires him to speak in an awkward, unnatural manner. Douglass, Lumbly, and Winfield can all overcome this problem with great technique, but Robertson doesn't fare as well (his neutral accent also seems out of place in Louisiana).
Sounder is presented in its intended full-screen aspect ratio of 1.33:1. Hooks uses earthy, muted colors, which come through nicely in the transfer. Grain is a bit problematic in the darker scenes, and some edge enhancement is noted here and there. The musical score makes effective use of Negro spirituals and Delta blues, and sounds fine in the 5.1 sound mix. The mix makes little use of the surrounds and the subwoofer, but seems entirely appropriate for this film. There are only 12 chapter stops, no extras, and no insert.
Sounder is an above-average television movie that compares favorably to the 1972 original. While many made-for-TV remakes are wretched knockoffs, this one was clearly a labor of love. Despite its shortcomings, it showcases some excellent acting. If you were to see only one filmed adaptation of the novel, it should be the 1972 film, but I can also warmly recommend this version. It's a pity than this disc is both barebones and expensive ($30).
Disney is commended for making this film available, but scolded for its price tag. The bringing of these charges make me suspect the prosecutor is a "cat person." Case dismissed.
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