The boy is 11 or 12, and he lives on a sharecropper farm with his parents, his brother and his sister. His parents are people of enormous dignity and strength - qualities the white community did not prize among blacks in the Louisiana of 1930. But they attempt sometimes against heart breaking odds - to hold their family together and make a better life possible for the children.
This is the situation at the beginning of "Sounder," which opens Friday at the Michael Todd. It comes to Chicago as one of the year's most highly recommended films. Consider: It is based on a novel that won the Newberry Award, it was produced by Robert Radnitz, for 12 years our foremost maker of serious family pictures (his credits include "And Now, Miguel" and "A Dog of Flanders'') and it was directed by a filmmaker of the first rank, Martin Ritt (who made "Hud" and "The Great White Hope").
And yet...how will it do here? "Sounder" opens in Chicago just at the beginning of the annual Christmas avalanche of movies; something like 18 films are scheduled to open in the next few weeks.
Can a sensitive, honest film about a family of black sharecroppers survive in a marketplace filled with historical musicals, gun battles, capsizing ocean liners, glossy Westerns and the usual run of black sex-and-violence movies?
Radnitz, who financed the film with backing from Mattel, the toy corporation, and who made it despite a unanimous opinion in Hollywood that it "wasn't commercial," thinks so.
"When you have a very good film that's a little unusual, a little special," he said, "the worst thing to do is open it before people have been told about it. You depend on word-of-mouth advertising to get the message around. In Chicago, we've had no less than 25 sneak previews of 'Sounder.' That's a record here, I think."
"Sounder" is unusual in a number of ways. It isn't a "black picture," for one thing, but a picture about black people intended for all people. It isn't a children's film (although it's based on a novel written for so-called "young adults"), but an intelligent family film that doesn't condescend. And it is about a time of great importance to American black history.
What many people don't realize, Radnitz says, is that the black studies programs didn't originate in the North, but in the South at about the time "Sounder" is set: "It began with the schools, the churches, with the kind of family we see in the movie."
The family sharecrops on a marginal sugarcane farm in Louisiana. Before payment for the harvest there is little to eat, and the father steals a ham one night to feed his hungry family. He is sentenced to a year at hard labor and his wife and children farm the land by themselves for a season.
The boy goes off to visit his father at a labor camp and stumbles by accident onto a rural black school where the teacher is attempting to give her students some idea of black culture and pride. The boy and the father return home, each with a new notion of what the future might - or should - hold. The movie's conclusion is hopeful, but totally realistic.
"Sounder's" performances are already talked about in terms of Academy Awards. Cecily Tyson, as the mother, may find herself in competition with Diana Ross (in "Lady Sings the Blues") for the honor of being the first black actress to win an Oscar. Paul Winfield, the father, provides the film's strongest presence, and his relationship with his son is one of the truest parent-child bonds in any American film.
And young Kevin Hooks, as the boy, blends naturally with a largely nonprofessional cast (the girl who plays his sister is a sharecropper's child who had never before seen a movie).
The Sun-Times review of "Sounder" will appear next week; this advance notice will hopefully give some warning that a really special family film is on the way to Chicago. That doesn't happen every year.