Classics Like Sounder Lead Us Higher (Movie Review)

Billie Jo YoumansBy Billie Jo Youmans7 Minutes

Fifty-plus years after its creation, Sounder proves itself to be the epitome of a classic. This 1972 movie captures the harsh unfairness of life while highlighting the hope of tenacity. Set in the American south during the depression era, poverty and racism threaten to destroy the Morgan family. A realistic, unbiased portrayal of the difficulties is masterfully presented by Cicely Tyson (as Rebecca), Paul Winfield (as Nathan Lee), and Kevin Hooks (as David Lee).

Based on a Newberry Medal book by the same name, Sounder’s awards attest to the quality of the movie production. Consider:

  • Both Tyson and Winfield received Oscar nominations for their performances.
  • Young Hooks earned a Golden Globe nomination.
  • The blues-musical score created by Taj Mahal was nominated for a Grammy.
  • And the movie was selected in 2021 for inclusion the National Film Registry because it is deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

This heart-felt presentation of a southern black family’s experience needs to be taken in by all.

A Little Entertainment

Poverty covered all of America in 1933, but arguably, none felt the hopelessness more keenly than black sharecroppers in the south. The hunger of Nathan Lee’s children drove him to risk the consequences of stealing meat from the landowner’s storehouse. Swift, harsh consequences came on Nathan Lee in the form of a brutal arrest that included shooting the family hunting dog. (Spoiler alert I wanted before watching: the dog lives.) As Nathan Lee’s family seeks to learn his fate, the children also have to step up to fill his shoes. The courage and grace of each member of the Morgan family instruct viewers with eloquent subtlety.

The “justice system” for a black man in the south at that time was capricious, ugly, and hard to look upon. In fact, all of society was that way. The movie doesn’t sugarcoat any of the ugliness, but it does not incite disunity either. Despite offering a racial jab or two, emphasis is placed on “aiming higher” (e.g., contrasting the positives at the African-American school with the sharecropping school). Overall, the characters are portrayed realistically as participants in a broken world. The movie offers great possibilities for exploring hard truths.

A Little Deeper Digging

With a dozen powerful concepts woven into this movie, I’m going to suggest one over-arching, timely topic: moving toward unity. Jesus’ prayer in John 17 proclaims God’s passion for unity. On the one hand, Sounder reminds us that great progress has been made in this area in America. But a quick scan of the news on any given day reveals deep wounds that still need healing. We are part of the healing process.

Getting God’s View on Problems

The first step in solving any problem is seeking the wisdom of God on the topic. Some Bible verses to explore include:

  • Genesis 1:27
  • Acts 17:26
  • James 2:1
  • Revelation 7:9

Scripture is clear: God has no preference for one person, skin color, or nationality. He looks at our hearts – and only hearts hidden in Christ can withstand His gaze. As Ken Hamm of Answers in Genesis says, we are all one race sporting various shades of brown—ranging from light to dark—but we all share common ancestors. The AIG website ( is a good resource for scientific materials exploring this topic.

Standing Up for What’s Right

Once we’ve determined God’s perspective, we really have no choice but to pursue it. The challenge of standing against “wrong” is integral to the issue of unity—and a fundamental responsibility of every Christian. Sounder powerfully depicts the realities of taking a stand—and the varying pressures of doing so based on personal circumstances.

The oppression faced by the Morgans relegated them to standing for personal rights – the right to eat, the right to know where a loved one is incarcerated. For them, even standing up for those most basic things brought harsh penalties.

On the other hand, only a small number of white citizens came face-to-face with the racial injustices. Those who witnessed the wrongs had to choose: would they fight the “institutional racism” or look the other way. The older white lady who sought to help young David find his father faced serious threats from Sherriff Young—who feared for his job if he ‘did the right thing.’ Both had to grapple with their personal convictions and make a choice. That remains true even today … and seeking God’s perspective first allows us to live with wisdom, compassion, and integrity to truth.

The courage required to stand for God’s principles can only be found in Jesus Christ. Exploring the cost of doing what’s right is a valuable investment and many possibilities naturally flow from Sounder.

A study of Cecily Tyson, the actress who played Nathan Lee’s wife, Rebecca, would offer inspiration and challenge. She is said to have restricted her acting career to portraying only strong, positive images of black women. Tyson’s devoutly Christian upbringing, no doubt, impacted her decision and ultimately her career. She chose to the pay the cost to honor her convictions.

The Apostle Paul offers another life-study. Much of his biography is recorded in the book of Acts or you might explore the New Testament books authored by him. The verses below also offer guidance on standing strong in Christ:

  • Matthew 5:14-16
  • John 17:17-21
  • Colossians 2:6-7
  • Philippians 4:13

Movies like Sounder remind us that life is challenging, but there is a right way to live and love others. May we embrace the messages that lead us to better living.