screen gems

He gave one of the great performances of the 1970s. Nobody knew he was gay.

Sounder

Welcome to Screen Gems, our weekend dive into queer and queer-adjacent titles of the past that deserve a watch or a re-watch.

The Classic: Sounder

What actors can boast a career as long and varied as that of Paul Winfield? The classy method actor flourished in a career that spanned forty years, and that saw him perform in such varied fare as the films Cliffhanger, Huckleberry Finn, and The Terminator, and in TV series including Julia, The Simpsons and as the title role in the Martin Luther King, Jr. miniseries King. He also had high profile roles in Star Trek: The Wrath of Kahn and The Next Generation.

Winfield always kept his private life private, in part, because he was a gay, African-American man working in a time when roles for black actors were limited, and when homophobia ran high. Following his death, Winfield’s friends and family let his secret out into the open, and celebrated his relationship with his boyfriend Charles Gillan Jr. which spanned more than 30 years.

For Winfield at his absolute best–and indeed, for acting at its absolute best–we offer up the 1972 classic Sounder, for which Winfield became only the third African-American man in history nominated for Best Actor. The film, incidentally, also became the first movie ever to have African-Americans nominated in both leading acting categories.

The plot centers on the Morgan family, sharecroppers living in 1930s Lousiana. Nathan (Winfield), the family patriarch, loves his wife Rebecca (Cecily Tyson) and children, and does his best to make them believe in a brighter future. One day, police arrest Nathan for stealing meat from a local smokehouse. In the struggle of Nathan’s arrest, accidentally shoots the family dog, Sounder. Nathan is taken to a work camp, leaving Rebecca and their son, David (Kevin Hooks), to support the family alone. As Sounder recovers from his injuries, David plots to locate his father in his distant camp and restore the family’s sense of hope.

Once upon a time, Hollywood would actually take a chance on a “family” film without relegating it to TV movie or direct-to-video status. Sounder marks a moment where the system took a risk on a family-oriented and black-centric story, and with fantastic results. Critics hailed Sounder as an instant classic. Viewed today, the film still has a deep power, due in large part to the work of Winfield and Tyson. This may be a simple story about a loving family and their dog, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a master class in acting.

This weekend, we pay tribute to the late, great Mr. Winfield, with this sweet and tender classic of 70s cinema. For those unfamiliar with his work, let Sounder whet the appetite for an intriguing body of work. He’s one of the great, underrated gay actors of our time.

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