Sounder (1972): Martin Ritt’s Depression Era Family Drama

Adapted from William H. Armstrong’s novel, which won the 1970 Newberry Award for children’s literature, Martin Ritt’s Sounder is an intelligently written, emotionally touching family drama.

Set in the Great Depression, in Louisiana, the tale centers on Nathan and Rebecca Morgan, sharecroppers raising their three children and their dog, named Sounder, in poverty against great odds. To support the family, Nathan farms and hunts for game, while Rebecca takes in washing, and the three children do their own tasks.   Unfortunately, there is not much game, and after stealing a ham, Nathan is arrested and thrown to jail. His absence tears the family apart, but it also forces its members to work much harder in order to survive.

“Sounder” is also an emotionally effective coming-of-age tale of an African-American boy, the eldest son, David Lee Morgan (Kevin Hooks), who craves for education (formal and informal), but he is forced to mature much quicker than other children of his age.

After being transferred to another prison in the South, the members can no longer visit him. The boy goes looking for his father’s crew against his mother’s objections. Unable to locate his father, he meets some convicts behind a fence, and when the guard spots him, he throws a piece of iron at him. There’s a wonderful scene that depicts how the boy picks up a book thrown out by a man, and follows students to a school building. A kind teacher treats his injury and offers to let the boy live with him so he can attend school.

The film is titled after the father’s hunting coon dog, hybrid of Georgia redbone hound and bulldog, named so for his loud voice. Featuring as prominently as the other characters in the story, Sounder is badly injured when shot by a shotgun while he chases the men who torture and arrest his master.


A sequel, Sounder, Part 2, was made in 1976, with Harold Sylvester and Ebony Wright essaying the roles played by Winfield and Tyson in 1972.

In 2003, ABC produced another version, which reunited two actors from the original Ritt picture: Kevin Hooks directed and Paul Winfield played the role of the teacher.

Oscar Nominations:

Picture, produced by Robert B. Radnitz

Actor: Paul Winfield

Actress: Cicely Tyson

Screenplay (Adapted): Lonne Elder III

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context

The major competition in the 1972 Oscar race was between Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather” and Bob Fosse’s musical “Chicago,” with each garnering 10 nominations.

The Academy voters split the major awards between “The Godfather” and “Chicago,” which won 8 out of its 10 nominations, including Best Director for Bob Fosse. The other three films nominated for the top award were: John Boorman’s “Deliverance,” with 3 nods; the foreign-language “The Emigrants,” with 4, and Martin Ritt’s Depression era saga “Sounder,” also with 4.

It’s noteworthy that for the first time in Oscar’s history, two black actresses were nominated for the lead award in the same year, the other being Diana Ross for “Lady Sings the Blues.”

In 1972, Marlon Brando won the Best Actor for “The Godfather,” and Liza Minnelli the Best Actress for “Cabaret.”


Nathan Lee Morgan (Paul Winfield)

Rebecca Morgan (Cicely Tyson)

David Lee Morgan (Kevin Hooks)

Mrs. Boatwright (Carmen Matthews)

Ike (Taj Mahal)

Sheriff Young (James Best)

Josie Mae Morgan (Yvonne Jarrell)

Earl Morgan (Eric Hooks)

Harriet (Sylvia Kuumba Williams)

Camille Johnson (Janet MacLachlan)



Produced by Robert B. Radnitz

Directed by Martin Ritt

Screenplay: Lonne Elder III, based on the novel by William H. Armstrong

Camera: John A. Alonzo

Editor: Sidney Levin

Music: Taj Mahal

Production design: Walter Scott Herndon

Costumes: Nedra Watt