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Sounder(1972)

At a time when studio executives thought the only way to sell tickets to African-American audiences was with tales of urban violence, this film proved that a simple family story, impeccably realized, could triumph at the box office. It was a gamble to turn William H. Armstrong’s Newbery Award-winning juvenile novel into a feature film, but producer Robert B. Radnitz, a specialist in family films like My Side of the Mountain (1969), convinced director Martin Ritt and playwright Lonne Elder III to take the chance. The result was an elegant and moving tale of black sharecroppers during the Great Depression dealing with day-to-day struggles. Even when faced with catastrophic events, like when the father (Paul Winfield) is sentenced to a year of hard labor for stealing food for his starving children, the focus remains on its characters coming of age and surviving. With Cicely Tyson as the mother, the story is immensely powerful thanks to the performances. She and Winfield (along with the script and the picture) were nominated for Academy Awards, and Tyson also received Best Actress honors from the National Board of Review and the National Society of Film Critics. Radnitz wisely marketed the film to ministers and educators, resulting in a groundswell of support that brought in well more than its original cost at the box office. (d. Martin Ritt, 105m, Digital)

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