Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBBB. USA, 1972. Radnitz/Mattel Productions, Rainbow Group. Screenplay by Lonne Elder III, based on the novel by William H. Armstrong. Cinematography by John A. Alonzo. Produced by Robert B. Radnitz. Music by Taj Mahal. Production Design by Walter Scott Herndon. Costume Design by Nedra Rosemond-Watt. Film Editing by Sidney Levin. Academy Awards 1972. Golden Globe Awards 1972.
A poor family of sharecroppers in early 1930s Louisiana are having such a difficult time getting by that dad Paul Winfield is compelled to steal food from a neighbour. Immediately arrested and sent to prison for a year, he leaves behind a wife (Cicely Tyson) and three children to take care of the year’s harvest, the eldest of his kids a thoughtful boy (Kevin Hooks) coming of age into a cruel world and an even crueller, racist south that seems dead set against his getting anywhere in life. At the heart of the story is the titular family pet, a dedicated dog whose experience of a needlessly cruel incident represents the bond of hope and loyalty that keeps this family’s head above water despite all their challenges. Martin Ritt made a number of films in the seventies that did a terrific job of pointing out the contradictions in American society, and this one’s up there with Norma Rae for being so devastating and powerful while also subtle and unassuming. There is no dramatic manipulation or simplistic stereotypes, instead the story’s politics hit their target accurately by showing a group of people for whom injustice has, unfortunately, become a daily way of life. Tyson is outstanding as the loyal mother and wife who goes for her moments of bravery despite a lifetime of being pushed down (like telling off the sherriff who won’t let her see her husband, which might be one of the best acted moments in a century of film), while Hooks is endlessly sympathetic as the boy whose love for his father inspires him to achieve greatness.