"Louisiana 1933" — The Morgans (Cicely Tyson, Paul Winfield, Kevin Hooks), a loving and strong family of black sharecroppers in the midst of the Great Depression, face a serious family crisis when the husband and father, Nathan Lee Morgan, is convicted of a petty crime and sent to a prison camp. After some weeks or months, the wife and mother, Rebecca Morgan, sends the oldest son, who is about 11 years old, to visit his father at the camp. The trip becomes something of an odyssey for the boy. During the journey he stays for a while with a dedicated black schoolteacher.The film established names for the characters, which the book did not.
The white people in the book are more truculent, cruel and racist than those in the film.
In the book, the father is on the chain gang for multiple years, not just one year, as in the film; the boy begins spending his winters with the teacher long before his father's return.
Both Sounder and his master's father are more grievously injured in the book than in the movie, and they both die within months of the father's return from the chain gang.
While the book centers on the family’s concern for the dog, screenwriter Lonne Elder III stated that he preferred to focus on the family’s daily survival. He noted that he at first refused the assignment, but producer Robert B. Radnitz and director Martin Ritt convinced him to work with them, saying "I wanted to keep Sounder accurate in its historical context, and not go off on any present-day fantasies."
A notable aspect of casting in the film is that the Minister is played by an actual minister and the Judge is played by an actual judge.
Sounder received warm reviews, and was praised as a welcome antidote to the contemporaneous wave of black films, most of which were considered low quality, low budget and exploitative. The film’s depiction of a loving family was hailed as a banner accomplishment for black filmmakers and audiences. Film magazine Variety wrote that the picture had been "for good or ill, singled out to test whether the black audience will respond to serious films about the black experience rather than the 'super black' exploitation features."
Some of Sounder's success was due to its innovative marketing strategy. Fox focused on group sales in major cities and targeted religious organizations and schools. Radnitz personally visited thirty-five cities and held over 500 screenings, with sixty simultaneous sneak previews held in New York City. The religious establishment came out in favor of the film, with an endorsement by the Catholic Film Office and a study guide for religious educators created by the National Council of Churches. The Variety article noted that Fox also wrote a study guide, prepared by Dr. Roscoe Brown, Jr., director of Afro-American Affairs at New York University. Fox spent over $1 million on promoting the film, according to Variety.
Based on sixteen reviews, Sounder holds an 88% "Fresh" score (and an average of 7.7/10) on Rotten Tomatoes. In his Family Guide to Movies on Video, Henry Herx wrote: "[Sounder] captures the humanity of [its] characters and a fine, distanced sense of its sleepy Southern locale. The movie earns a deep emotional response from its audience because its [appealing] story and characters are believable. Not only a valid examination of the black experience in America, it is also a fine family experience." He added that the boy's search for his father "provides additional drama". Film critic Roger Ebert gave the film four stars out of four, stating that "...This is a film for the family to see". Both Siskel and Ebert placed the film on their ten best list of 1972.
Despite popular skepticism that the film would not be a financial success and the belief that "the black film market is exclusively an action and exploitation market", the picture was a major box-office hit. Made for less than $1 million, Sounder grossed just under $17 million, earning $9 million in US theatrical rentals in 1973. It was the 15th highest-grossing film of 1972.
This film spawned a sequel, Part 2, Sounder in 1976.Nominations
Best Picture: Robert B. Radnitz
Best Actor: Paul Winfield
Best Actress: Cicely Tyson
Best Writing (Screenplay--based on material from another medium): Lonne Elder III.
In 2003, ABC's Wonderful World of Disney aired a new film adaptation, reuniting two actors from the original: Kevin Hooks (who played the son) directed and Paul Winfield (who played the father) played the role of the teacher.
When Sounder was released in theaters, the film was produced and distributed by Twentieth Century Fox. Years later, when the film was released on VHS, Paramount Home Video assumed distribution rights. Sterling Entertainment currently has DVD distribution rights. Walt Disney Home Video has released the 2003 made-for-television film on DVD.