Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A Boy, His Dog and His Daddy

by Odienator
(click here for all posts)

Subconsciously, I started the first three years of Black History Mumf with pieces on fathers and sons. 2008 brought House Party, 2009 was Baadasssss, and 2010 had Boyz ‘N The Hood. My choices were not intentionally designed for this pattern; it wasn’t until last year when I realized what I had done. My reasons, I am sure, have much to do with any son’s open issues with his father. But now that I am conscious of the father-son thing, I couldn’t bring myself to start this year with this theme. Had I remained oblivious, you’d be reading this on February 1st rather than today.  No matter. Fathers and sons are a hot topic, especially if you are either or both.  I am the latter and will never be the former, though occasionally a movie will make me question that decision.

1972 was a big year for Blacks at the Oscars. This year’s nominations are the universe’s way of balancing itself out, I suppose, but 39 years ago, five Oscar nominations were bestowed on Black folks. I’ve written about the work of two of those nominees: Diana Ross and Suzanne DePasse for Lady Sings the Blues. The other three nominations came from Sounder, an adaptation of the book I wrote my book report on in the 5th grade. Sounder made several appearances on TV when I was a kid, and it’s a good thing I, unlike way too many of my classmates over the years, actually read the book instead of just watching the movie.  The movie takes several liberties, despite being fairly faithful to the source material, and to be honest, I was far more affected by the movie than the book, which I found a little too willing to wallow in misery.

Lonne Elder III, who reteamed with Tyson in Bustin' Loose, made history with DePasse as the first Black writers nominated for writing Oscars. Elder’s screenplay creates a more tender relationship between father and son, and softens some of the more gruesome aspects of the novel. He also provides a different ending for the dog and the father, a missed opportunity for creating the perfect storm of a movie men could cry at with impunity. After all, if you want guys to bawl, kill the dog or a baseball player. The patriarch of the family in Sounder plays baseball when not working the fields for a White man so cheap that the father has to resort to stealing to feed his family any protein. Unlike the book, the man and the dog both survive the movie. I cried like a fool anyway.

I must have a thing for movies that feature the late Paul Winfield and a dog. Last year, I did White Dog, a movie with a different kind of both dog and Winfield. The dog here has the movie named after him, and enjoys the company of Black people rather than the taste of them. Winfield plays a sharecropper with three kids and a wife. Both he and the actress playing the wife, Cicely Tyson, received deserved Oscar nominations for their work, a feat that to this day has not been repeated by Black actors in the same picture. (Odie note: I was wrong about this--see Fishburne and Bassett in What's Love Got To Do With It?) As one of the kids, Kevin Hooks gives a sweet, natural performance as their eldest son, David Lee. In 2003, Disney reunited Hooks with Winfield on a remake of Sounder, which Hooks directed and Winfield had a part as the teacher David Lee meets.

Sounder opens with Nathan Lee and his son hunting raccoon. Sounder the dog gives chase, leading Nathan Lee to a tree where a clear shot at the raccoon fails to yield results. The raccoon escapes, and Nathan Lee returns home to wife Rebecca empty-handed. Nathan Lee’s feelings of inadequacy as the breadwinner are temporarily soothed by David Lee, but later in the evening, Nathan Lee disappears. The family awakens to the smell of sausage and ham. Rebecca and the kids are surprised, and happy to eat something more than the cold mush they’ve been eating for months.  Rebecca’s questions about the procurement of this feast go unanswered.  

Though Nathan Lee and Rebecca work the land as sharecroppers, there are moments of play interspersed in their lives of hard work and even harder times. Nathan Lee is a pitcher on an all Black sharecropper team, and he pals around with blues singer Taj Mahal, who also contributed this film’s soundtrack. The scenes with Mahal are as fun and loose as the score. He flirts with Rebecca and ribs Nathan Lee the way any good friend does. It would have been nice to see more of him.

David Lee loves his father and his dog. They both get taken from him on the same day. Rebecca gets the answer to her question about where that ham came from when the cops at her door come to arrest Nathan Lee for theft.  Rebecca tries to put in a good word for her husband, but the sheriff could care less about Nathan Lee’s reasons.  As the sheriff’s truck rides off with Nathan Lee, Sounder attempts to catch up with him. The cop sitting next to Nathan Lee takes aim at Sounder, and only Nathan Lee kicking the gun as it fires saves Sounder from instant death. Wounded, he runs off into the woods.

The White man for whom Rebecca and Nathan Lee work the land is more concerned about his crops not being tended than whether Rebecca and her kids will survive without Nathan Lee’s help. The judge in Nathan Lee’s case sentences him to a year of hard labor on a chain gang. When Rebecca inquires about the location of the chain gang, the sheriff, in a show of just how little Blacks meant to Southern Whites in Sounder’s time, refuses to tell her. Scenes like these, and when the sheriff’s deputy purposely destroys the cake Rebecca sent to her husband at the jail, made my blood boil. It’s just meanness for meanness’ sake, and director Martin Ritt heightens their power by keeping them understated.  Adding to my hatred of The Dukes Of Hazzard, the sheriff in Sounder is played by Ros-COE P. Coltrane himself, James Best.

The White woman for whom Rebecca does laundry, Mrs. Boatwright, attempts to help David Lee find out where his father has been sent. Earlier, she gave David Lee a copy of The Three Musketeers when he dropped off her laundry, and she seems to have genuine affection for David Lee. Roscoe P. Coltrane refers to this as “a crush on some cullud boy” when she, at David Lee’s urging, tries to charm the information out of the sheriff. She is faced with a moral crisis when, after looking at Nathan Lee’s file while the sheriff is away, she is threatened with excommunication from the sacred church of polite Southern society if she reveals what she’s read. Mrs. Boatwright tenses up, and refuses to tell David Lee.

Eventually, her change of heart sends David Lee on a journey to find the chain gang where his father is held. Using Miss Boatwright’s directions, David Lee walks and walks and walks. Black people do a lot of walking in Sounder, and their sweaty clothes and shiny, dark skin send feelings of oppressive heat right out of the screen. After a few days, David Lee finds the chain gang but is injured (in another scene that made me mad) by a guard. David Lee’s wounds are tended by a schoolteacher, who later allows him to sit in on her class. This is a vastly different class than the one he occasionally attends at the predominantly White school closer to home. David decides this is the school he would rather attend, provided he can leave his post as the new man of the house.

Sounder’s two big reconciliation scenes are memorable. The first one is the scene you paid to see if you rented this picture. After a dynamite blast renders Nathan Lee “useless to the gang,” due to his leg injury, he is released from the gang. Since it took David Lee days to get to the gang’s location, you can only imagine how long Nathan Lee had to walk on one bum leg to get home. Sounder notices him first, in the distance stumbling home using a tree branch as a crutch. The kids see him next, and lastly, Rebecca sees him. The shot where Rebecca breaks into a run to her husband is jubilant; Tyson explodes with emotion as she runs toward us and into her husband’s arms. 

 Winfield and Tyson make you feel their reunion, and the scene has further payoff later when, after putting the kids to bed, Rebecca and Nathan Lee look at each other with as much hinted sexual passion as the G-rating will allow. The smile on Nathan Lee’s face breaks Winfield’s face into a mischievous, horny country boy grin.

The second reconciliation occurs earlier: A boy and his dog are reunited. Ritt shoots this from far away as man and beast reconnect. Suddenly, cin-togger John Alonzo’s camera pulls back to reveal that we have been watching this from Rebecca’s position on the porch. Ritt frames the boy and dog in the distance, and Rebecca in the forefront of the right side of the frame. It’s from this same vantage point where Sounder first sees Nathan Lee later, telegraphing the point from where Rebecca does that run to her man.

How John Alonzo didn’t receive an Oscar nomination for cinematography is beyond me. There are gorgeous widescreen shots of wide open spaces, both in the light and the dark, and effective use of close-up to convey emotion. The spaces where Sounder takes place seem like vast, wide open areas where you can walk for days to get where you need to go. Alonzo’s work helps Ritt achieve, through visuals and placement, these quiet moments of desperation and helplessness, as well as boisterous outpourings of joy.

It’s a damn shame they named this movie after the dog. He doesn’t really do anything besides bark and get shot in the face. (I guess that latter thing earns him at least a screen credit. But not the title.) Nathan Lee and David Lee, however, have two scenes where their father-son bond is reiterated and strengthened. Earlier at the jailhouse, Nathan Lee gives a strong speech that warns his son about ending up in his prison predicament. This has a follow-up in the last scenes in Sounder, when David Lee decides to give up his acceptance at the Black school in order to spend more time with his dad. Nathan Lee reacts angrily at first, and then, after finding David Lee near the river, softens his message but doesn’t deviate from it. He wants David Lee to have it better than he and Rebecca had it. Isn’t that the wish of every parent, including my own?

“Do you think we could ever be friends?” asks Nathan Lee. David Lee shakes his father’s hand, then hugs him. Ritt keeps the camera on David Lee buried in his father’s embrace for mere seconds, lifting his camera to catch Nathan Lee’s reaction before dropping them almost completely out of frame. It made me want to hug my Pops, who also wished for me to have a better life than he and my Mom do. I have that life.

I cried like a fool.

Sounder is rated G, though the language would probably get it a PG now.


Hal said...

A wonderful film in every regard. Probably my favorite Paul Winfield performance.

What did you think of Hooks' remake?

Steven Boone said...

What I dig most about this piece is how much you say about your own father/son experience just by implication, between the lines.

You have a programmer's sense of grand design and a storyteller's soul. (I'm just trying to get a blurb on your future book covers, heheh.)

I can't find it, but didn't you do a "One Drop of Black Cinema" post on John Alonzo? If not, lemme drop that in the suggestion box. I see where you mention him here as well.

Lovely work. I gotta find a copy of the movie and borrow my nephew's copy of the book. (I was one of those kids who just watched the flick.)

odienator said...

Hal, I never saw the remake. I should see if it's on DVD.

Boone, Alonzo is responsible for lensing some of the most memorable Black moments in cinema. He warrants one, but I have a different One Drop Of Black Cinema coming up this year. Stay tuned.