Sounder (film)

Sounder is a 1972 American DeLuxe Color drama film in Panavision directed by Martin Ritt, and starring Cicely Tyson, Paul Winfield, and Kevin Hooks.[4] The film was adapted by Lonne Elder III from the 1970 Newbery Medal-winning novel Sounder by William H. Armstrong.[5]

Original movie poster for the film Sounder.jpg
Original poster
Directed byMartin Ritt
Produced byRobert B. Radnitz
Screenplay byLonne Elder III
Based onSounder
by William H. Armstrong
StarringCicely Tyson
Paul Winfield
Kevin Hooks
Carmen Matthews
Taj Mahal
Music byTaj Mahal
CinematographyJohn A. Alonzo
Edited bySid Levin
Radnitz/Mattel Productions, Inc.
Distributed by20th Century Fox[1]
Release date
  • September 24, 1972 (1972-09-24)
Running time
105 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$1.9 million[2]
Box office$16.9 million[3]


In 1933 Louisiana, the Morgans (Cicely Tyson, Paul Winfield, Kevin Hooks), a loving and strong family of black sharecroppers raising sugar cane, face a serious family crisis in the midst of the Great Depression. Nathan Morgan tries to teach his son David to be a man and survive in difficult times with their dog, Sounder. But Nathan is imprisoned for a year after stealing a ham to feed his starving family. While Nathan is in the local jail awaiting shipment to a work camp, the sheriff will barely allow the family to visit. A sympathetic local woman with access to the sheriff's filing cabinet tells the family the location of Nathan's camp, and plots the route on a road map. Sounder, who had been injured and lost, returns home in time to accompany David on a long but unsuccessful walk to visit his father. On the way home, David discovers a school. A kindly but firm teacher named Camille takes him in and starts to teach him about important African-American figures in history. David becomes desperate to go to school, but when his father is released a maimed man, David must choose between leaving home for an education that can give him a better life and staying home to support his father.


  • Cicely Tyson as Rebecca
  • Paul Winfield as Nathan Lee
  • Kevin Hooks as David Lee
  • Carmen Matthews as Mrs. Boatwright
  • Taj Mahal as Ike
  • James Best as Sheriff Young
  • Eric Hooks as Earl
  • Yvonne Jarrell as Josie Mae
  • Sylvia "Kuumba" Williams as Harriet
  • Ted Airhart as Mr. Perkins
  • Richard Durham as Perkins' Foreman
  • Wendell Brumfield as Deputy #1
  • Al Bankston as Deputy #2
  • Merle Sharkey as Teacher
  • Inez Durham as Court Clerk
  • Judge William Thomas Bennett as Judge
  • Reverend Thomas N. Phillips as Pastor
  • Carl Bruser as Wagon Driver
  • Jerry Leggio, Jr. as Guard #1
  • Pete Goff as Guard #2
  • Walker L. Chaney as Guard #3
  • Roy Idom as Guard #4
  • Randy Wilson as Convict #1
  • Isaac Greggs as Convict #2
  • Jackie Spears as Girl #1
  • Porter Mathews as Boy #1
  • Timothy Smith as Boy #2
  • Spencer Bradford as Clarence
  • Janet MacLachlan as Camille


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, as "I wanted to keep Sounder accurate in its historical context, and not go off on any present-day fantasies."[6]

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.


Taj Mahal recorded a soundtrack to the film, released in 1972 by Columbia Records. According to music journalist Robert Christgau, it was "the first soundtrack ever patterned after a field recording", featuring a "suite/montage/succession of hums, moans, claps, and plucked fragments", all performed in the key of the gospel blues song "Needed Time" by Lightnin' Hopkins. Fellow critic Greil Marcus regarded it as Mahal's "most eloquent music", although Christgau said "even Greil doesn't know anybody who agrees. I've always regarded field recordings as study aids myself." He gave the soundtrack album a C-plus in Christgau's Record Guide: Rock Albums of the Seventies (1981).[7]


Sounder opened September 24, 1972 at the Embassy and Plaza theaters in New York City.[8]

Home mediaEdit

When the film was released on VHS, Paramount Home Video assumed distribution rights. Sterling Entertainment currently has DVD distribution rights.


Critical receptionEdit

Sounder received warm reviews, and was praised as a welcome antidote to the contemporaneous wave of black films, most of which were considered of low quality and budget and exploitative. The film's depiction of a loving family was hailed as a banner accomplishment for black filmmakers and audiences. 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."[6]

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 35 cities and held over 500 screenings, with 60 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 wrote a study guide, prepared by Dr. Roscoe Brown, Jr., director of Afro-American Affairs at New York University. 20th Century Fox spent over $1 million promoting the film, according to Variety.[6]

John Simon wrote "Sounder is a rare honest movie about people who work the soil under conditions of extreme rigor. Sounder is also a rare honest Hollywood movie about blacks, making it virtually unique'.[9]

Based on 16 reviews, Sounder holds an 88% "Fresh" score (and an average of 7.7/10) on Rotten Tomatoes.[10] 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".[11] Film critic Roger Ebert gave the film four stars out of four, stating that "This is a film for the family to see." Both Gene Siskel and Ebert placed the film on their 10-best lists of 1972.[12]

Box officeEdit

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",[citation needed] the picture was a major box-office hit.[6] The film grossed $27,045 from 2 theaters in its opening week and grossed 30% more the following week.[8] Made for less than $1 million, it grossed just under $17 million, generating $9 million of theatrical rentals in the United States and Canada in 1973,[13] the 10th highest-grossing film of 1972.

Awards and nominationsEdit

Award Category Nominee(s) Result
Academy Awards[14] Best Picture Robert B. Radnitz Nominated
Best Actor Paul Winfield Nominated
Best Actress Cicely Tyson Nominated
Best Screenplay – Based on Material from Another Medium Lonne Elder III Nominated
British Academy Film Awards Best Original Music Taj Mahal Nominated
United Nations Award Martin Ritt Nominated
Directors Guild of America Awards Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures Nominated
Golden Globe Awards Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama Cicely Tyson Nominated
Most Promising Newcomer – Male Kevin Hooks Nominated
Grammy Awards Album of Best Original Score Written for a Motion Picture or a Television Special Sounder – Taj Mahal Nominated
Kansas City Film Critics Circle Awards Best Actress Cicely Tyson Won[a]
National Board of Review Awards Top Ten Films Sounder Won
Best Actress Cicely Tyson Won
National Society of Film Critics Awards Best Actress Won
New York Film Critics Circle Awards Best Actress Nominated
Writers Guild of America Awards Best Drama Adapted from Another Medium Lonne Elder III Nominated


A sequel, Part 2, Sounder, was released in 1976.

Television versionEdit

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. Walt Disney Home Video has released the television version on DVD.

See alsoEdit



  1. ^ Miller, Gabriel (2000). "Notes". The Films of Martin Ritt: Fanfare for the Common Man. University Press of Mississippi. p. 231. ISBN 1-57806-277-2. Retrieved June 16, 2011.
  2. ^ Solomon, Aubrey. Twentieth Century Fox: A Corporate and Financial History (The Scarecrow Filmmakers Series). Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 1989. ISBN 978-0-8108-4244-1. p257
  3. ^ "Sounder, Box Office Information". The Numbers. Retrieved January 21, 2012.
  4. ^ Roger Greenspun (1972-09-25). "Sounder (1972) Screen: 'Sounder' Opens: Story of a Negro Boy in Louisiana of 1930's". The New York Times.
  5. ^ ALJEAN HARMETZ (Mar 18, 1973). "Robert Radnitz--Unlikely Avis to Disney's Hertz". Los Angeles Times. p. o1.
  6. ^ a b c d "Sounder". American Film Institute. Retrieved March 1, 2014.
  7. ^ Christgau, Robert (1981). "Consumer Guide '70s: M". Christgau's Record Guide: Rock Albums of the Seventies. Ticknor & Fields. ISBN 089919026X. Retrieved March 2, 2019 – via
  8. ^ a b "'Sounder' A Slow Starter, Building Into B.O. Winner". Variety. October 11, 1972. p. 5.
  9. ^ Simon, John (1982). Reverse Angle: A Decade of American Film. Crown Publishers Inc. p. 90.
  10. ^ "Reviews for Sounder". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved August 7, 2011.
  11. ^ Herx, Henry (1988). "Sounder". The Family Guide to Movies on Video. The Crossroad Publishing Company. p. 251 (pre-release version). ISBN 0-8245-0816-5.
  12. ^ "Siskel and Ebert Top Ten Lists (1969–1998)". The Inner Mind. 3 May 2012. Retrieved 2016-05-30.
  13. ^ "Big Rental Films of 1973". Variety. 9 January 1974. p. 19.
  14. ^ "The 45th Academy Awards (1972) Nominees and Winners". Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 2014-03-01.

External linksEdit