A look back at “Sounder” and successful performativity

Earlier this month when Donald Glover won the Emmy Award for Best Actor in a Comedy Series (his second that night), he quipped, “I want to thank Trump for making black people number one on the most oppressed list. He’s the reason I’m probably up here.” It’s the sort of mildly disconcerting but still thought provoking thing you’d expect Glover to say. He won awards for directing and acting on the FX comedy “Atlanta,” which has a penchant for subversion. His remark underscored a theme throughout the night, the Emmy Awards depended on a virulent vocalisation of its anti-Trumpness.

Beyond the jarring appearance of Sean Spicer (Trump’s former Press Secretary), the night was decidedly anti-Trump, anti-conservatism, anti-white supremacy. The winners in key categories were notable for being against the norm. The first Asian man to win an acting Emmy in Riz Ahmed, the first black woman to win a writing award for comedy in Lena Waithe, the first black director to win for comedy with Glover, the first woman in almost three decades to win directing for a drama series in Reed Morano, and so on and so on. The wins were not just about representing, but seemed to be symbolic of the television’s academy’s stance. The wins were a way for voters to demonstrate their inclusive stance. The awards were immediately hailed for their progressive winners, then almost immediately castigated for the lateness of that progression, then there was the backlash to the backlash about change being incremental, then an ensuing backlash (the third stage now) about the performative nature of it all. That seemed to shut things down mostly. Performativity. Noun. As a concept it means the capacity of speech and communication not simply to communicate but to rather to act or consummate on action, or to construct and perform an identity. Not just doing something but doing something to consummate further action. In modern, “woke” parlance, performative is just another word for insincere. It’s that thing allies do because it’s easy but demands no effort.

A scene from the film “Sounder”

Our issues with performativity probably lines up with general disinterest in didactic works of art. In thinking of performativity and the didactic, I got to thinking about a film celebrating its 45th anniversary this week, “Sounder.” It’s a film whose production and success is probably somewhere on the performative scale.

Sounder is notable for being the first truly black film to be nominated for Best Picture. “In the Heat of the Night” would win an Oscar for Best Picture in 1967, the same year “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” would be nominated, but both of those films depend on the intersection of the black experience in America with the white one and neither focuses with impunity on the black experience as seen through a family. “Sounder” tells the story of a family of Black sharecroppers living in Louisiana during The Great Depression.

Times are hard and on an evening when spirits, and coffers, are especially low, the patriarch of the family steals some meat from some white land owners. And although that two-line synopsis might suggest an expected tale of an intrepid and indigent family dealing with the institutionalised racism of the era, “Sounder” is never rote. Unlike so many black films from then to now “Sounder” is less interested in examining the convergence of differing classes and is, instead, satisfied to focus with specificity on the quiet life of that black family.


“Sounder” is a film about the love and tenacity of a family unit. This intent seems slight amidst the reaches of its best picture contemporaries until you stop to consider that simple act was an act of defiance for a film with a black cast in its time. Before 1972, black life was about the streets, the nightclub, the pool-hall, the cool pose, or the fighter. “Sounder” offered an alternative.

Generally, I like my films and my media free of didacticism and yet its value in the face of injustice is significant. Didacticism depends on being performative. The thing is not just the thing, but the thing is what it represents. What it suggests. What it argues. And “Sounder” triumphs because its performativity is emphasised while being an excellent film all the while. More significantly was the response to it. Made for under a million dollars, the film earned more than sixteen times its budget at the box-office and became one of the 15 highest grossing films of the year. That was 1972. Hollywood and producers should have realised that good films on black lives could make money, and yet, it seems it’s something that so few studios seem to acknowledge. An experience beyond the white-straight-male one can be successful. (Look at “Girls Trip,” still playing in Guyana two months after its release.)

The simplicity of “Sounder” is its own badge of courage. The legend of the black film, especially in the face of injustices meted out to its characters, is one where audiences have come to expect a call to revolution to accompany each injustice. The film’s revolutionary act is having young David Lee become literate, taught by a kindly African American teacher.  For the modern audience its quietude may seem tame and yet that’s the beauty of it. A few years ago, the American Embassy showed the film to celebrate Black History month at the Castellani House and the attendees appreciated its diffidence. Many pointed out the black experience of the time seemed to ring through not just for black Guyanese but all of us. What is beautiful about “Sounder” is the very fact that its blackness is not its most distinguishing feature. Not because the blackness of its story is shrouded, but because in developing a specific family’s tale of hardship, “Sounder” is disinterested in selling an image of a specific “type” of blackness and becomes that much more successful at achieving universality for the very way its characters feel pain, hurt and joy like any human. The experience rings out to all.

The third act return of the family’s patriarch is a mostly wordless sequence playing out against the family’s field that sees Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield asked to do nothing but showcase their love for each other. It’s a sequence that becomes affecting just because of the brilliance of those two actors and Martin Ritt’s uncomplicated but effective direction. Tyson and Winfield became the first pair of black actors to be nominated for Actor and Actress Oscars from the same film. Lonne Elder III became the first black writer nominated for an Oscar. “Sounder” also features music from blues musician Taj Mahal. Credit must also go to Ritt (one of the era’s forgotten, excellent directors) for his skilful handling of the material. Whenever stories about the marginalised are told, I think about the eternal question of who should be telling those stories. Ritt’s use of black persons in key roles in front of, and behind, the camera was performative, too. He was sending a message. See what is possible? In an era of people like Barry Jenkins and Ava DuVernay and Dee Rees, in a world of films like “Moonlight” and “Pariah” or shows like “Queen Sugar” and “Atlanta”, the performativity of “Sounder” does not feel particularly profound. Still, it has to start somewhere. Maybe in 45 years, this year’s diversity push at the awards will seem as natural as “Sounder” and its performative inclusion seemed in 1972.


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