Sounder is the name of the Morgan family’s faithful hound dog. They live as sharecroppers in Louisiana during The Depression. Nathan (Paul Winfield) and Rebecca (Cicely Tyson) have three children and their oldest child David Lee (Kevin Hooks) is becoming more and more dependable with age. After an unsuccessful night of coon hunting, there will once again be no meat on the table, but the next morning David Lee wakes up his siblings excitedly smelling meat cooking. It isn’t until Nathan is arrested for the petty crime of stealing that we figure out where the meat came from. He’s sent to a prison camp, but the family is not told where. After some help from Mrs. Boatwright (Carmen Mathews), a white woman who pays Rebecca to do her laundry, they learn the camps location and send David Lee to find it, see if he can locate his father and find our when he is returning.
Throughout the film, David Lee’s love for school is shown. Though his father needs his son’s help around their home, Nathan lets David Lee go to school and supports his son’s learning. The walk to school is so long that David Lee attempts to hitchhike, but it’s not likely that a white man will pick up a little rural black boy in the 1930’s. When he finally arrives at school, late, he sits in the back, next to the only other black child, and listens to the teacher read from Huckleberry Finn.
Later, during David Lee’s journey to the prison camp, he happens upon another school house. Mrs Johnson is teaching a room of black children. After she kindly helps him with a wound, she gladly lets David Lee join the class and lets him stay at her house. There, she gives David Lee a few books about important African-Americans in history, including Harriet Tubman and Crispus Attucks, people he would probably never hear about in his school back home. Before David Lee leaves, Mrs Johnson invites him to stay with her during the school year so she can continue to teach him. Though David Lee wants and has potential for an education, he knows that his family needs him at home.
The film is based on William H. Armstrong’s short novel that won both the Newbery Medal and the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award just two years before it was adapted to film. The film centers on the family unit and David Lee’s journey, yet Oscar nominations went to Winfield and Tyson. No doubt, they put on wonderful performances but it feels like Hooks’ David Lee gets the short end of the stick. I’m not saying that kid deserved an Oscar, but he is the driving force of the story and the center of the family.
Sounder makes a great recommendation for family film night, though when dealing with a poor black family in the south there are some racial tensions. It may raise a few questions with the youngsters, but with strong family values, good-hearted characters like Mrs. Boatwright and Mrs. Johnson and a warm fuzzy ending, you can feel good showing this one to your kids. You just might get them to read the book too.
“A few knife holes ain’t gonna destroy the soul your momma put in this cake.”