When Sounder was released in 1972, the film received praise throughout the country as a landmark in its departure from the heretofore typical depiction of blacks on the screen. However, while Sounder was hailed by critics and moviegoers alike, that praise was also mixed with criticism of the movie as sentimental, superficial, and oversimplified.
The screenplay for Sounder was written by African American playwright Lonne Elder III, based loosely on an award-winning children's book of the same title by white author William Armstrong. Elder's screen version tells the story of an African American share-cropping family in Louisiana during the Great Depression. Elder shifts the focus from the significance of the relationship between the eldest son and the family dog (for whom the story is named); in the film, the dog is an important “character” but not central. Instead, he provides companionship for the boy and serves a symbolic role as the plot develops around the family's major conflict. Set in 1933, the film stars Paul Winfield as the father, Nathan Lee Morgan; Cicely Tyson as his wife, Rebecca; and Kevin Hooks, in his first major role, as their eldest son, twelve-year-old David Lee. Two younger children (Earl and Josie Mae) are played by Hooks's younger brother, Eric, and a young girl (Yvonne Jarrell) from the Louisiana parish where the movie was filmed.
Nathan Lee shares a close and special father-son relationship with his eldest son, David Lee, which is often characterized by meaningful eye contact and smiles, spontaneous hugs, and solemn handshakes. David Lee has to quickly assume the role of adult when Nathan Lee, unable to feed his family, steals meat from a white neighbor's smokehouse. Following his arrest, Nathan Lee is tried, convicted, and sentenced to one year on a prison chain gang in a distant parish. While Nathan Lee is awaiting trial, Rebecca is rebuffed in her attempt to visit him after making a daylong trek to the jail in town. Following this failed attempt, the family suffers further humiliation and uncertainty as Rebecca is belittled by the plantation owner in his company store and is forced to plant and harvest the season's crop with the assistance of only her children. In an act of private rebellion and self-assertion, Rebecca buys supplies for a chocolate cake from the owner, which she promptly bakes and sends to her husband via David Lee, who, as a boy child, is allowed to visit. A sympathetic white woman for whom Rebecca does laundry, Mrs. Boatwright, promises David Lee that she will find out which prison camp his father has been sent to. Mrs. Boatwright steals an opportunity to rifle through the sheriff's files and finds the information. She is threatened by the sheriff and initially refuses to disclose the information to young David Lee. However, upon seeing his disappointment and utter loss of faith in her, Mrs. Boatwright tells David Lee what she has found. Armed with this information and advice from his mother and family friend, Ike (played by musician Taj Mahal), David Lee embarks on a journey to visit his father on the chain gang. He does not find him but is befriended by a black teacher, Camille Johnson (Janet MacLachlan), who invites him to come back and attend the school she runs for black children. Nathan Lee returns home limping from an injury he suffers in an accident while on the chain gang and attempts to pick up where he left off with his family, resuming the role of head of household. Things have changed, of course, and in a symbolic depiction of the end of one phase of the Morgans' lives and the beginning of another, the movie ends with Nathan Lee driving David Lee back to the parish to attend Miss Johnson's school the following term.